Saturday, 25 September 2010

In search of wine, olives and the Cinque Terre

In a few short hours I will be leaving for Bologna and the Cinque Terre where I will be partaking in much wine, cheese, pizza, pasta and olive consumption! I have not yet packed, but when I do I will be prioritising books over thick jumpers (which may come in handy for the chilly evenings) as we are only taking one small rucksack each. I am going to take The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim and either the biography of Nancy Mitford by Harold Acton or The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Decisions, decisions.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Ilyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

Occasionally I finish one book and drift over to my bookshelves to contemplate which book to read next - and the next read turns out to be the most perfect book to suit my current mood. This does not happen often enough, but when it does, oh! The delight! I love being gripped from page one and being unable to think of anything else for days. The sheer joy of slipping in between the book covers and burrowing down into the plot so that the characters are a whisper's breath away is incomparable to anything else.

Illyrian Spring is one of those reads that pulls you in so that you are the characters. Their experiences are as vivid as your own and they become so real that to finish the book is a wrench. The protagonist is Lady Kilmichael who is also the famous painter Grace Stanway. Grace decides to escape her family and leave her life behind to go on an unplanned trip drifting and painting her way through Italy, Croatia and the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea which used to be known as Dalmatia.

Whilst in Venice, Grace meets the young Nicholas Humphries who is around the same age as her twin sons. He is an aspiring painter whose parents have convinced him to pursue the sensible route of architecture and give up painting. Just as Grace is looking for freedom from the pressures of domestic life and the associated responsibility, so Nicholas is looking for freedom from his parents rule.

Grace and Nicholas go on a journey together. They paint and explore the landscape and their lives become further and further entwined as each embarks upon an intense journey of self-discovery.

What is so interesting about Ann Bridge's writing is the insightful portrayal of characters who are in a state of flux and running away from their lives. There is no melodrama, only the deep intensity of two souls searching for answers and finding each other to aid them in their understanding.

The search for freedom on Grace's part leads her to make some startling discoveries about herself. The freedom that she craves is not gained from running away from her life but from looking inside herself and examining the truth of her problems with her family. In this way, Bridge writes with psychological astuteness and her novel is timeless as a result. After all, how many of us avoid a difficult situation by leaving it?

This book is a simply lovely and wonderful read, made more wonderful by the description of the beautiful landscapes that Nicholas and Grace explore. It made me yearn to go travelling along the Adriatic coast with only a rucksack and a pair of tennis shoes. I would swap the paint and canvas for a notebook and pen though.

Illyrian Spring seems to be a difficult book to get your hands on, I was fortunate enough to be given it by my lovely friend Rachel. She loved it and raved about it and I know exactly why - it is an honest portrayal of a realistic adventure. In other words, the reader feels as if the experiences of Grace are obtainable, if we just left a note and hopped on a train. In that way, it is made even more magical as it delves into a part of us that we all keep hidden. The part that wants to run away. The novel makes it perfectly clear though, that at some point we have to make a decision about going back and Ann Bridge leads us gently by the hand to the right decision.

If you can find this book, buy it. Beg, borrow or steal it. Reading it is like slipping into a new skin and embarking upon a trip during which life presents some answers to a few troubling questions. All this in the midst of a delicate romance in a breathtaking location where the sea sparkles and time is an irrelevance. I think I may have to dive back in.

Bloomsbury Books go Gleeful

Ok - this is just a quick post for those of you who haven't seen it. This video here by members of staff at Bloomsbury Publishing is possibly the best thing I have seen in years - how is it possible that I can spend five minutes cringing and grinning all at the same time? A work of genius. Enjoy!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Woodstock Literary Festival

Blenheim Palace

A day spent at a world heritage site in the company of great writers is the perfect way to spend a cold and grey Sunday. This morning my alarm went off at 07.30 and as I rolled over to slam my hand down on the snooze button I remembered that I had to get the bus to Woodstock.

This was a new experience for me as I actually had to arrive at the bus stop for a specific time - after years of living in London I am used to just pitching up and hopping on one of the many buses that would all go to my destination. The Oxfordshire service is a totally different story. I caught the one bus that went that hour and as we chugged along country lanes I did start to wonder if the bus driver was frightened of the accelerator.

I arrived at Blenheim Palace when it was still sleepy and calm. I walked along the endless drive and was awed by the sprawling grounds and stunning palace. It is an incredible sight when you round on the palace but somehow it is too glorious. I found it hard to imagine it as a place of residence, rather than a visitor attraction. I wonder what it must have been like fifty or one hundred years ago when it was bustling with serving staff and groundsmen and was an entire economy in itself.

The first talk I went to was Adam Sisman talking about Hugh Trevor-Roper and it was absolutely fascinating. Trevor-Roper was a historian and academic at Oxford who had a thirty year feud with Evelyn Waugh. They never met but were arch-enemies due to fundamental differences in opinion about Catholicism. Waugh referred to Trevor-Roper as the "Demon Don" after he criticised the behaviour of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. In turn, Trevor-Roper thought that Brideshead Revisited was a fake portrayal of life at Oxford and that it over-romanticised Catholicism.

Waugh and Trevor-Roper's feud was very public as both would write letters to various publications in which they criticised each other. I couldn't help thinking that they both sounded as though they enjoyed goading each other to make the next move; like a pair of ego-maniacal schoolboys.

I also saw Lady Antonia Fraser talking about the book she has written about her thirty-three year relationship with Harold Pinter. I was inspired by her admission that she has kept a diary for over forty years as, in her words, "One good reason for keeping a diary is that you remember the facts but you forget the details" - so diary-keeping is how she can remember a lifetime of detail. Her relationship with Pinter sounds like a true love affair and he was incredibly romantic, writing her love poems and bestowing her with bundles of flowers. The thing that she said which really struck me was that Pinter would say to her "Happiness is not dramatic" - a true statement, articulated perfectly.

And lastly, I saw Colin Dexter talk about his life. He is incredibly witty and had the audience in stitches for most of his talk. It was such a great opportunity to see the author of the Morse novels which I love. He didn't talk too much about Morse but regaled us with tales from his schooldays and his inspirational English teacher who introduced him to Thomas Hardy. By the time he left school he had read all of Hardy's novels. He admitted that he will be appearing in all the Lewis episodes (he appeared in most Morse episodes) but he has to do about six takes even if he is just walking down the street as he isn't a very good actor!

If the Oxfordshire local bus service can take me to such an amazing location to hear fantastic speakers - I can't really complain about the infrequency or lack of speed!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Acquisitions for the weekend

Chichester Cathedral

I am going home to Chichester for the weekend to stay at my mother's house. As soon as I walk in the door I will be met with the warm fug of cooking smells and my mum will greet me in her apron. The familiarity of my childhood home is something that I cherish and I love curling up on my mum's sofa with the family cat, Oscar, a cup of tea in hand and a huge slice of homemade cake with a good book.

In preparation for a weekend of reading, and due to the fact that I was escaping a rain shower, I bought three books in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles; William Golding's The Spire, Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native and a rather amazing looking Virago which I am particularly excited about.

Before I start these however, I must finish Ann Bridge's Ilyrian Spring which is one of my favourtie reads of 2010 so far. Simply perfect. A review will follow!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

Edward Burne-Jones, Music, 1877, copyright The Ashmolean
Last night we went to the private view for The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy at the Ashmolean. The exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to see lesser known works by well known Pre-Raphaelites; Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Hunt and Ruskin are all on show. What was particularly interesting is that a lot of landscapes of Italy are on display which was great as I haven't seen many Pre-Raphaelite landscapes before. Looking at all the paintings of beautiful Italian landscapes was a perfect way to whet my appetite as I only have a week and a half before I will be in Italy basking in the autumnal sun and scoffing as many olives as I can find!

I love Burne-Jones and one of the real treats of this exhibition is that Andrew Lloyd-Webber has lent The Fall of Lucifer from his private collection. The painting is haunting and at 2.5 metres high is quite over-powering. The gilded edge contrasts beautifully with the gloomy, lowly colours of the painting as Lucifer and his reprobate angels fall from heaven.

Cycling home through the quiet streets of Oxford is such a delight at this time of year. Our way home was lit by the stars and we were accompanied by the peal of bells as bell-ringers were practising for Sunday. September is one of my favourite months as the smell of woodsmoke starts to creep in and the gentle chill reminds me that cosy evenings are on their way.

I am going to plan the books that I will take with me to Italy. Thank you for all your Italy inspired reading suggestions. I now have to narrow it down so that I leave some room for my toothbrush.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A holiday to cure my 'consumption'

This is just a quick post to explain the unintentional blogging break. The last two weeks have simply flown by into nowhere it seems and I haven't been very well so have been holed up in my bed feeling very sorry for myself and watching rubbish telly and reading easy crime novels. I am still peaky and currently have no voice at all, well I have a croaky, squeaky sound that is just ridiculous.

Anyway, that is the reason I haven't been writing (or reading much). The end is in sight though and I am cheering myself up with the fact that I have booked a week in Italy at the end of September; for a much needed rest. We are going to Bologna and the Cinque Terre (see above) and I cannot wait. Apart from A Room With A View what other books are set in Italy and constitute a 'must read'?

In the meantime - normal blogging will resume.