Various Pursuits


Sorry for disappearing for a while there. I’ve got no real excuse other than just being busy!

I’ve just come back from a few days in Paris, which was lovely; it was a work trip, so I didn’t have masses of free time, but I did manage to sneak in a visit to Musee d’Orsay and the Petit Palais, both of which have wonderful examples of 19th and early 20th century art, a cake and chocolat chaud at my favourite cafe, Cafe Angelina, and a night time stroll that took in Notre Dame and Shakespeare and Co. Plus of course plenty of steak frites and vin rouge. Unfortunately I always seem to be in Paris when it’s grey and miserable, so I’m looking forward to this summer, when I’ll actually be there when it should be sunny…though as you can see from the picture above, it is still pretty even when the sky is glowering!

I’ve been up to a lot in the last couple of months in London, too. I’ve been to a few exhibitions – Two Temple Place’s new exhibition on Ancient Egypt is very good, and as always, it’s worth a visit just to look at the building, aside from the objects on show. I really enjoyed the Artist and Empire exhibition at the Tate, though I thought Frank Auerbach was everything that I find incomprehensible and infuriating about modern art – if anyone is a fan, please do enlighten me about what I was supposed to see in his work, because I failed to see anything! The Vogue Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is enormous and worth seeing, though personally I could have done with far more on the early days of the magazine and its design and photography than the stuff from the 70s onwards. I thought Lee Miller’s war photography was the all too limited star of the show, and I must get to the exhibition of her women in war photographs at the Imperial War Museum before it closes. Cinema-wise, I’ve been doing my best to see the Oscar nominated films, and I have to say my favourite of the lot so far is Spotlight, which was shocking and compelling in equal measure.  I expected my favourite to be The Danish Girl, but in fact, I was largely annoyed by it. It was beautifully shot, and Alicia Vikander in particular was marvellous, but overall I found the story very reductive and lacking in any actual substance. I thought that everything that really mattered was completely glossed over, and it’s a shame, because it could have been a brilliant and quite daring film in bolder hands.

And finally, reading. I’ve not managed to read a lot of late; there’s just not been time. But I’ve just finished re-reading Marghanita Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music, which I found just as shocking yet compulsive as the first time I read it, though this time I could not find as much sympathy for Deborah, the protagonist, as I did when I was a younger reader. It’s a fascinating novel set in London during the Second World War, but rather than the plucky, can do spirit seen in many wartime novels, this takes a very different tack, looking at the war from the perspective of those who used it to their advantage. With husbands and wives away, the characters that populate Laski’s wartime London can’t wait to play, and Deborah, initially determined to not be unfaithful to her husband, soon finds herself irresistibly drawn into the glamorous whirl of life as a mistress to a variety of rich and handsome men. I think I was almost the same age as Deborah – 24 – on my first reading, and I could appreciate her youth, her naivety, and her selfishness from the perspective of being that young myself. I could see how she could have been led astray, seduced from the comforts of hearth and home to live a life of excitement and glamour that she had never really had the chance to enjoy. However, on this reading, I only saw her as a selfish, shallow woman, whose only aim in life had always been to secure the best for herself, regardless of anyone else. However her husband is no better; in fact, almost everyone in this novel, male and female, comes across as being incredibly self-centred and weak, and Laski paints a very unpleasant view of the world, suggesting that, by and large, people are incapable of fidelity and only motivated by their own desires. As such, even though it’s a very well written book, and brings the seedy streets of wartime London very effectively to life, it does leave a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Another book that I wouldn’t call an enjoyable experience, but was an interesting and compelling read nonetheless, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I found it incredibly hauntingly and powerfully written, with Capote’s customary elegance and style, but the portrayal of events was completely not what I had expected. The family, made out to be types, examples of those who prospered from the American Dream, became unreal, the tragedy of their deaths undermined by the saccharinity of their depiction. Homecoming Queen Nancy, science fair winning Kenyon, tee tolling, God fearing Herb and his shy, anxious wife Bonnie felt like caricatures, and though the gruesome manner of their deaths was certainly graphically described, I felt I was not encouraged to grieve for them as people. The real sympathy in the book is given to their killers, Smith and Hickock, who are painted as lost souls failed by the system, products of abuse and poverty and lack of opportunity, who killed out of a frustration and envy that the world had not offered them what it had promised. Capote’s fascination with and romanticising of the killers bordered on the disturbing for me, and I found his decision to turn the murders of four completely normal, innocent people into some sort of modern day fable, almost excusing their deaths as being the inevitable result of inequality in American society, actually rather disrespectful. Therefore, as much as I enjoyed the quality of the writing and was intrigued by the subject matter, I found it a very unsettling book. I’d be very interested to hear what other people have made of it.

So that’s me caught up. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time! In the meantime, do make sure you go and listen to mine and Simon’s latest podcasts – you can access them through Simon’s blog or on our iTunes page here. We can’t promise professionalism, but we can promise you will be entertained!



  1. Oh gosh, you’ve been home! I mean you have been at “my home”! Lucky you. That made me stop reading further (joke).
    One comment though: Angelina is not a cafe. Angelina is a “salon de thé”, like Mariage Frères where I encourage you to go next time you are in Paris. A salon de the fills in for light lunches and for goûter and is mainly for ladies. It is an old institution dating from the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century where ladies might have been going when cafes were unsuitable for them. Women would have gone to cafes or débits de boisson – never to salons de the. Gentlewomen versus lower class women. And Barbara Pym’s characters later like Wilmet or Prudence. Shades in social classes that still remain…
    No wonder you like your hot chocolate there: it is an institution!
    Shakespeare and Co are perfect for English speaking tourists as well as frites and vin rouge. Not typically French anymore unless in foreigners’ mind as camembert with baguette! 🙂
    Let me tell you when you go back to Paris. Even if I have not been there for a while, I might give you some paces to go…
    Paris is always grey and sad in February. It will turn to Spring now. There will be a sudden whiff in the air and a different light. It will happen all of a sudden one day and we shall know that winter is over.
    Lucky, lucky you…

  2. Such a pleasant surprise to see your report back in my inbox. I do hope you will find time to read some more books and write the respective reports. I also enjoyed your description of Paris, still beguiling in gloomy winter.

    1. Thanks Sue! I’m hoping to be around far more often this year, don’t worry – thank you for your patience! I’m glad you enjoyed the description of Paris – I do think there’s something special about a city that can still charm in the depths of a grey winter!

  3. In Cold Blood really is an impressive book. I read it long ago when it was first published, and just felt the horror of the story. I had occasion to re-read it for a book group recently, and realized what a remarkable book it is.

  4. Hello! So nice to have you back. I’ve been checking each day since you’ve been gone and there suddenly today you were back! Glad to know that you’ve been busy.

  5. I think you’ve identified why I’ve always found In Cold Blood so cold. Of course, the victims were dead before Capote got there but I suspect his characterization of them has something to do with a “superior New Yorker” mentality. But you’re right. He did romanticize the killers. To some extent, I believe he also manipulated them to get them to talk to him.

  6. Thanks for the tip about Two Temple Place. We come to London every year and thought we’d seen most of the galleries but we’d missed this one. Then I checked what was on at the National Gallery in June when we’re there and saw they have an exhibition on Russia and the Arts in the age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky and one on Charlotte Bronte so you’ve filled up two days for us!!

    1. You are very welcome! Two Temple Place is lovely but unfortunately only open in the winter 😦 the National Gallery exhibitions sound wonderful, though- I’m glad you mentioned them as I didn’t know they were on! I hope you’ll have a wonderful trip!

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