Sunday, September 30, 2012

The British Library, Brighton, Bookshops, and Buckingham Palace

Sir Isaac Newton
brooding over the Universe
British Library courtyard

London 2002 continued...

Monday 16 September 2002

This is not to be missed: The British Library. Take the Underground to King's Cross. Turn right out of the station and walk a block. As you pass by St. Pancras station on your right, look up. It is a wonder.

Oh my. This library was one of my favorites. It is in a new building (1998) that has a grand statue in the front courtyard of Sir Isaac Newton brooding over the Universe. Inside is a book lover's dream. John Evelyn's diary from 1660 (in tiny, tiny handwriting); Jane Austen's writing desk; the original Alice's Adventures Underground with Lewis Carroll's own drawings; the manuscript of Middlemarch by George Eliot. (I had just read this earlier in the year and was thrilled to see the original.) Also a display of original Beatles' lyrics on paper napkins and the backs of greeting cards proving that inspiration can strike anytime. "I want to hold your hand..." There also, of course, are illuminated manuscripts, bibles, maps, Magna Carta, and more.

A wonderful gift shop full of books - what else. It is worth it to buy the souvenir guide. (Five pounds sterling.) Great photos and much history.

We had lunch in the shadow of the glass tower that runs up the middle of the building and contains the library of King George III. About 65,000 volumes. Awesome.

Next, we found our way to Covent Garden. Wandered in and out of the small shops at Neal's Yard (fashions, shoes, magic, natural remedies); had tea at the original Covent Garden; bought an enameled brooch for Mom at one of the antique stalls; and, miraculously found our way to nearby Stanfords, Britain's largest bookseller of maps and travel books, to purchase a copy of Mrs. P's Journey. It is about the woman who created the London A-Z map.

Tuesday 17 September 2002

Terre a Terre

Day trip to Brighton. (An hour south by train from Victoria Station.) Toured the fantastic Royal Pavilion built by George IV with its Oriental domes and Chinese-style state rooms. Lunch at Terre a Terre vegetarian restaurant. Some shopping in The Lanes, a maze of small stores and restaurants. Bought chocolate-covered violet cremes that were yummy. A stroll along the boardwalk with great views of the Brighton Palace Pier (built in 1891) stretched out on the water looking for all the world like a grande dame in white lace. High tea at the Grand Hotel overlooking the English Channel. Three tiers of goodies: scones, finger sandwiches, sweets. Took a taxi back up the long, steep hill to the train station and back to London.

Wednesday 18 September 2002

Cecil Court bookshops

Spent five hours (including lunch) at the National Portrait Gallery. If you only see one museum, make it this one. Start at the top floor and work your way through the faces of British History. I was swooning. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen...on and on. The only disappointment was that the gallery with a portrait of PM Tony Blair (I am crazy about him) was closed. Alas...

Afterwards, we turned left out of the museum and strolled along Charing Cross Road with all its bookshops. Too bad; so sad. 84 Charing Cross Road is no longer there, but its spirit is. Don't miss Cecil Court which is full of teeny bookshops too. It is right off CCR and is a treasure.

I bought a book of English essays and Twenty-Five by Beverley Nichols. He wrote Merry Hall which is a must read.

Thursday 19 September 2002

This is the morning we toured Buckingham Palace. The Queen only opens the palace to tourists in August and September while she is summering at Balmoral. La-de-dah for her. 

The best story about this experience: 

As we entered the palace through the Ambassador's Entrance we had to walk through a long, narrow hallway that was lined with marble busts perched on columns. One loud American berated the guard: "Why aren't these busts identified with names. It would be helpful to know who they represent." 

To which the guard replies in her chilliest British fashion: "Madame, this a not a museum. This is the Queen's home."

So there!

After the palace and tour through the gardens, we made our way to the Ritz Hotel. Mom had a seat in the lobby while I wrote a letter to myself on the hotel's stationery at a small wooden writing desk. Tres elegante. I posted the letter and it arrived in my post office box shortly after I arrived home. A little memento of our visit.

Of course I bought stationery at Smythson's
We did some shopping on Bond Street and New Bond Street. Here was everything I wanted: chocolates from Charbonnet et Walker; stationery from Smythson's; a Waterman fountain pen from The Pen Friend in Burlington Arcade which is right off of Bond Street. I was in heaven.

To read the entries for the remainder of our time in London, start here.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Which We Arrive in London

The Chelsea Physic Garden, London
The perfect place to refresh one's spirit after
hours on an airplane, or anytime really
As this is the last weekend of my British Month, I have made a bold decision to add the rest of the day-to-day account of a trip that my mother and I took to London in September 2002. The account, based on the journal that I kept, was written for a family friend who was going to be visiting England six months or so after we were there.

Last weekend I posted from the end of the journey as the dates corresponded; this is from the beginning of the trip. 

You will see that it is quite bookish. Here goes:

Wednesday, 11 September 2002

We arrived at Lime Tree Hotel on Ebury Street about noon. We caught a direct train from Gatwick to Victoria Station and walked the few blocks to the hotel. A charming and convenient location in Belgravia. We had rooms on the ground floor (as I had requested) that overlooked the back garden full of rose bushes. So very British, don't you think?

After checking in and putting up our feet for a few moments, we walked south toward the Thames past the Royal Hospital to spend time at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was founded in 1673. We had our first English tea there and strolled the gravel paths amongst plants and flowers that were intended to heal. A very quiet time. It was a fine place to catch our breath after breathing recycled air on the airplane for hours.

Dinner at Ebury Wine Bar & Restaurant next door to the hotel. It was the first place I had eaten dinner 20 years ago when I was in London. I stayed on the very same street. As a matter of coincidence, the couple who now owned the Lime Tree Hotel had owned Ebury House when I stayed at that fine establishment in September 1982.

Lime Tree Hotel
Ebury Street, London

Thursday 12 September 2002

Took the Big Bus Tour of the city. The company's many routes and live-guide talks proved to be a good way to get our bearings and to see the Big Picture. We sat on the top of red double-decker buses and had a grand time. Unfortunately, that was the day we took a lot of photos with the camera that didn't have any film in it. Woe!

Friday 13 September 2002

Started out at the Tower of London. Took the tour with a colorful Beefeater (bloody history made funny for the tourists). Oohed and aahed over the Crown Jewels. A spin through the gift shop (we each bought T of L souvenir leather bookmarks). We passed on the White Tower which contains armor and weapons. I took Mom's photo with one of the guards dressed in full regalia. 

We had a picnic lunch on a bench overlooking the Thames and Tower Bridge. Took a boat ride up the Thames to Westminster then  the underground ("Mind the Gap") back to St. Paul's Cathedral. (A bit of backtracking, but the boat ride was a spur of the moment idea.) St. Paul's is gorgeous. We didn't go downstairs to the Crypt. It was getting late and we still had to visit Dr. Samuel Johnson's house which is tucked away on Gough Square. From St. Paul's, signs directing us were well marked. Dr. Johnson, of course, is the fellow who compiled the first English dictionary in this very house. 

Saturday 14 September 2002

The British Museum. Hours spent looking at Elgin Marbles, Egyptian stuff, and the Rosetta Stone. The best part was sitting in the famous Reading Room with its spectacular dome and books, books, books all pertaining to the museum's collection. Lots of famous people have used this very room. Great gift shop so allow time to browse through it. 

Reading Room
British Museum

Sunday 15 September 2002

We walked over to Sloanes Square Underground Station and met our guide for a London Walk. These are such fun. There are tons of them covering all areas of the city. We spent two hours or so on the tour walking the streets and neighborhoods around our hotel. Very ritzy area. Margaret Thatcher (Dame) lives just a few streets over from our hotel. We didn't see her but we did see her house and the guard fellow who stands watch. Saw the house where "Upstairs/Downstairs" was filmed and also Noel Coward's home which is on Gerald Road in Belgravia. 

Later, we found our way to Piccadilly Circus and had lunch. Window shopped on Regent Street (no traffic as there was a street fair going on). Then we enjoyed the farce - "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare - Abridged" - which was wacky and irreverent. The Criterion Theatre is right at Piccadilly Circus. A great old, small theatre.

Tomorrow 16 September through 19 September - The British Library, Brighton, Bookshops, and Buckingham Palace.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Peek Inside Merry Hall

The end papers of Laughter on the Stairs
featuring the interior of Merry Hall
as drawn by William McLaren 
Where Merry Hall is mostly about the creation of the gardens of the Georgian house bought by author Beverley Nichols after World War II, the second in the trilogy, Laughter on the Stairs, gives a glimpse into Merry Hall itself. 

This book records Mr. Nichols's quarrel with a stained glass window left by the previous owner, his installation of a window grill in the music room cupboard, the purchase of art, and the delivery of four walnut chairs designed and crafted in 1695 by a gentleman named Daniel Marot. It is these chairs, the gift from a friend, that Mr. Nichols sets as the standard for all the other furniture he purchases for the house.

He writes:

The vow was that somehow or other, cost what it may, I would try to live up to those chairs. To try to 'live up to' anything beautiful, whether it is a Greek vase or a slow movement by Mozart, is a most worthy and moral aim; if beauty is in your head, if even a fragment of perfection abides in you, it acts as a standard to which you may constantly refer, even if the reference is subconscious. The lines of the vase, the lines of the music -- they are a corrective to excess.

We also get to meet up again with Miss Emily, Our Rose, and the mysterious and erudite Marius and are introduced to Miss Mint and Erica, another author and faux gypsy. Everyone likes Miss Mint; Erica, on the other hand, is thought to be quite a pain. And, deservedly so.

Mr. Nichols has great fun walking these characters, along with Gaskin his manservant and Oldfield the aged gardener, in and out of the gardens and the rooms of Merry Hall and their exploits, conversations, and opinions sparkle on the page. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beatrix Potter

Two nights ago I watched the movie "Miss Potter" about the beloved children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 - 22 December 1943). My favorite part was the opening scene which showed Renee Zellweger as Miss Potter mixing her watercolors and testing the shades of blue on thick watercolor paper. I covet the wooden box in which she kept her pencils and brushes. 

When young, while her brother impaled moths and butterflies for his collection, Beatrix was sketching toy rabbits. When the family takes to summering in the Lake District, Beatrix discovers an entire barnyard of animals and gardens. These studies became the basis of her tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Paddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and a host of other mice, toads, and kittens.

The movie was a gentle story about Miss Potter's success with her books, her romance with her publisher - of which her parents strongly disapproved - and about her purchase of Hill Top Farm in the Lake District and surrounding farms in an effort to preserve the beauty of the landscape

I can see that I am going to be off on a Miss Potter kick. Not only because of her stories but especially because of her sketches and watercolors. 

Wikipedia tells me that there are mysteries featuring Miss Potter - The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter - by Susan Wittig Albert. There are two recent biographies by Linda Lear: Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2007) and Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius (2008).   And, there are her own journals and letters.

I can't think of a better way to spend the winter than in the company of the talented and kind Miss Potter.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

British Book Loot

I scored some big time British books today. First, I had lunch with a friend (and a big fan of Beverley Nichols) and she brought me her copy of  his Down the Garden Path which was first published in 1932, long before Merry Hall was even a gleam in his eye.

This is another garden creation story and one that I am not sure I have read. His books are slowly coming back into print (Yea! This one has a publishing date of 2005.), but it wouldn't matter if I had read it eight times before as I know I will be reeling along whatever path he chooses to go down.

Also, in the library's mystery section, there stacked all by themselves on a shelf were three crime thrillers by an author totally unknown to me:  Kyril Bonfiglioli. I love the titles: Don't Point That Thing at Me; After You With the Pistol; and, Something Nasty in the Woodshed (shades of Cold Comfort Farm, yes?).

According to the jacket blurb, this trilogy was a cult classic in Britain in the 1970s and features the Honorable Charlie Mortdecai, a "degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, seasoned epicurean, unwilling assassin, and acknowledged coward."

I checked out all three as I was afraid I would love the first and then would have to wait to get my hands on the second and third books. I hope I am not to be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Next Up: Laughter on the Stairs

I have been merrily tripping along with Beverley Nichols at Merry Hall and now I am ready to move on to the next book about his life wrangling flowers, trees, cats and visitors -- Laughter on the Stairs.

I have long been quite enchanted with Mr. Nichols. He was a war correspondent, gardener, and author. In addition to his gardening books he wrote five mysteries, six novels, six plays, two books on cats, and six, yes count them, six, autobiographies. He penned others as well including political writings, children's books, and a treatise on the marriage of W. Somerset Maugham.

How did Mr. Nichols ever find time to mess about in the garden?

His first autobiography, Twenty-Five (Being a Young Man's Recollections of His Elders and Betters), was published in 1926 when he was a mere twenty-eight years old. Even at that age he had lived quite a bit and had met some stellar people in his travels. I happen to own a copy of the book. I found it in 2002 in a little book shop,  Rees & O'Neill, 27 Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road. I paid two pounds for it. 

In Merry Hall he writes a bit about his life as a journalist and comments about having to write to pay for the next extravagance for his garden and house.  I love that even when his (male) secretary hints that funds are running a bit low, Mr. Nichols throws caution to the wind in order to continue on with his next elegant plan.

I could practically quote the entire book; it is that entertaining. But then you must discover the delightful Mr. Nichols for yourself. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Our Last Day in London

And so to our last day in London...

24 September 2002

Our final day. Mom and I walked from our hotel up Victoria Street to Westminster Abbey. A wander through there with a long pause at the Poet's Corner. Some writers are just honored here; some are actually buried here. Part of the fun is discovering who is and who is not.

Just at the door as we left: A tribute to "A British Warrior unknown by name or rank buried 11 November 1920 in the presence of King George V."

Then we were out on the street with the Houses of Parliament straight ahead. In front of the buildings people were chanting and protesting: Don't Attack Iraq. 

I wanted to see 10 Downing Street - hoping for a glimpse of Mr. Blair. Police came up behind us and moved everyone along as there was a 'suspect package' at the base of the Cenotaph which is the site of a yearly Remembrance Service to commemorate British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the two World Wars and later conflicts. The inscription reads "The Glorious Dead".

One of the city's many ironies: On every London street corner, in every church, there is a war memorial to the thousands who have died in battle. And yet the talk of war, the smell of war is still in the air. You would think we might have learned by now.

We ended the day with dinner at the Ebury Wine Bar next to our hotel. The very place we had eaten dinner our first night in London. I like a tidy ending, don't you?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Castle and a Spot of Tea

Although we stayed in London the whole time, we took various day-trips. We saw lots of English countryside this way. A bit of a break from The City.

23 September 2002

Trip to Windsor Castle. It was great fun. They have a Changing of the Guard here as well (just like at Buckingham Palace) and we got some fine photos. Not too crowded. We were all alone with Queen Anne's dollhouse. The state rooms are fantastic. So many beautful things. I especially paid attention to all the wonderful clocks. There was a gorgeous full-length portrait of Queen Elizabeth II painted in 1954 just after her coronation. St George's chapel is the burial site of Henry VIII and nine other monarchs. Also Queen Mum and Princess Margaret.

Had lunch in a funny little place just outside the castle wall called The Crooked Tea House. Ordered a cheese and pickle sandwich thinking I would get sliced pickles, but instead got cheese and sweety chutney. It was good but quite different. Served actual leaf tea!

Back in London, the bus driver dropped us off at Harrod's and we wandered in that consumer emporium for a while. Overwhelming. The food halls were the best. We had hot chocolate and a scone and then walked back to our hotel. My trusty map-sense got us there, but it was tricky.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Protesters and Paintings

22 September 2002

Some sort of demonstration in the city today by the country folk who don't think the city folk understand about fox hunting and all that. So just what London needs: an additional million people walking the streets.

We opted to go to Tate Britain on Millbank. Nice group of Turner paintings and other British artists: Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Reynolds. Great collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Then a short ride to south of the Thames to Southwark (pronounced Suth-uck). This is the side of the river with The Globe Theatre but we didn't visit. Instead we tried to find the Bramah Tea Museum but couldn't. It had moved. Oh well. This was my fault. I had the correct address in my journal but was looking at an old map that had the museum's previous location marked on it. We had adventures anyway. Some of the marchers were on this side of the river too. Always something to see in London.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A September Stroll and a Mystery

I am having some issues with Blogger. I can only compose in HTML and I have no idea how to format any of the text (bold, italics) or insert images. Sigh. It is always something with technology.

Anyway, I will continue on with an account of my days in London on this date a decade ago.

21 September 2002

A stroll from our hotel (The Lime Tree Hotel on Ebury Street) down past the Chelsea Physic Garden, then along Cheyne Walk, the Thames sliding by on our left, past the house where George Eliot died in 1880, and up the King's Road. We ducked in and out of vintage clothing stores, Marks and Spencer, and had lunch in an Italian bistro. Just a relaxing couple of hours before we had to get ready for The Theatre. We had tickets to Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" in St. Martin's Theatre just off Charing Cross Road. I had seen this play on my first trip to London but to Dame Agatha's credit (or my approaching senility) I didn't remember 'who done it'.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A London Sketchbook

In honor of British Month, I pulled off my shelf a "London Sketchbook" which I bought after my mother and I spent ten days in England in 2002. The book features watercolour paintings and pencil sketches by Graham Byfield. It is a wonderful armchair tour of the many buildings, parks, streets, and monuments in that vibrant city of over eight million people.

The paintings are accompanied by notes handwritten by the artist (and are sometimes a bit difficult to read). I have set it out on a table open to the page showing a painting of Tower Bridge. Tomorrow I will change it to another page and another scene. I don't know why I didn't think to do this at the beginning of the month.

In the front of the book I found a day-to-day account of our trip that I wrote for a friend who was going to visit the city and wanted suggestions on what to see and what to do. I was instantly transported to London, a city I described as "a town full of cell phones, shoe shops, and old stones." Here is what Mom and I were doing ten years ago today:

20 September 2002

Bus trip to Stonehenge and Bath. This takes all day. Stonehenge is eerie. A lot of big stones on a big wind-blown plain. The day was overcast which added to its mystery. The best thing about Bath was that I got to purchase a box of note cards at the Jane Austen Museum which I had seen featured on the museum's web site. Famous women writer note cards: Woolf, Eliot, Austen, and Bronte. We ate a Cornwall pastie for lunch. Cheese and onion stuffed into a flaky turnover that sat like a stone in my stomach.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

Merry Hall
home of Beverley Nichols
I had forgotten I was going to re-read Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols for my British Month. I thought of it as I was drifting off to sleep last night and awoke this morning looking forward to visiting with Mr. Nichols and reveling in his trials and tribulations in restoring the Georgian manor house and its wreck of a garden about an hour's journey outside London.

The action all takes place after WWII in 1946. Mr. Nichols was 45 years old at the time. After a long search, Merry Hall was just what he was looking for.  Not only did he buy the house, he inherited its gardener Oldfield who had been working on the property for 40-some years.

Mr. Nichols had just returned to London after doing a job in India. He knew that if he didn't get back to a garden he would die. He writes:

You have to be a gardener to understand that the expression of such a feeling is not a mere figure of speech; it is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. I believe that if it were possible to take what might roughly be described as a 'psychic photograph' of a gardener, you would find that there would be ghostly tendrils growing from the tips of his fingers, and shadowy roots about his feet, and that there would be a pattern of ectoplasmic lines that linked him in the natural rhythm with the curve and sway of the branches about him. And I believe that if this same picture were taken when he was removed from his natural environment, it would be the picture of a dying man - the frail tendrils and roots would be starved and stunted, the rhythm broken. 'Green fingers' is not only a flash of poetry; it is a fact in physiology.

Ah. Well, I don't have any phantom tendrils or roots, but I do like reading about those who do. Especially Mr. Nichols whose way with words and a spade are all too entertaining.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How to Become an Expert in Type-writing

Photo -- See Caption Below
Manufactured by Standard Typewriter Mfg. Co, Ilion, New York
Remington Standard Typewriter #2
Metal, wood, textile. H 29, W 30, D 39 cm

I am not sure what to read next. Most likely I will re-read Essays of Elia in keeping with my British theme. I also have a reader's copy of the novel The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee. It takes place in Victorian England. I have read 35 pages and so far the best bits are the quotes from How to Become an Expert in Type-writing that introduce each chapter. That is a real book. I found it on Google Books. It was written in 1890 by Mrs. Arthur J. Barnes. Here is some of Mrs. Barnes's advice just in case those of you who learned to type on a typewriter have forgotten:

It is very important that you should learn the key-board so thoroughly that you can see it with your eyes shut, and can strike each letter without the least hesitation.

Observe the bell. The bell rings to warn the writer that he (sic) is approaching the end of the line.

And best of all, concerning typewriting and life in particular:

If you form a careless habit in the beginning, you will probably always keep it.

The story concerns one Betsey Dobson who is a London typewriter girl and works for an insurance company. But she is destined for better things...she hopes...and takes a job at a seaside resort. There is most likely both romance and trouble in store for Miss Betsey.

I can't help thinking of Mma Grace Makutsi of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency who graduated from the Botswana College of Business and Secretarial School with the highest ever mark: 97 percent. I am sure she would approve of Mrs. Barnes and her thoughts on typewriting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hard Frost by R.D. Wingfield

I am finishing up my fourth Frost. (That kind of rolls off the tongue like Firth of Forth). Dear Detective Inspector Jack Frost of the Denton Divison Police Department. This coarse, curmudgeonly character grows on me. Here are the things I like about him:

He works on multiple cases at once ranging from murder to kidnapping to petty larceny. Most fictional detectives try to solve one case per book. This gives the story a more realistic feel and the timeline in each book usually covers just a few days.

Frost hates paperwork. He is willing to let another detective take the glory for solving a case rather than waste time writing up reports.

He doesn't mind admitting it when his ideas or suspicions turn out to be wrong. He just moves on to his next plan with the goal always in mind of catching the bad guys.

Frost doesn't have a regular partner. It seems that in every book there is a new person sitting at the other desk in his messy, smoke-filled office. In Hard Frost, the new detective happens to be a woman, Liz Maud. She and Frost get off to a rough start, but I think she is beginning to like him just a tiny, tiny bit. OK, maybe not like, but respect.

When a family has to be notified of a death, although Frost hates to be the one to carry the tragic news, he does it anyway with as much gentleness as he can muster. There does beat a heart underneath his tattered, dirty raincoat and unpressed suit.

He doesn't suffer fools gladly. Case in point:  his superior Superintendent Mr. Mullett. Frost calls him Horn-rimmed Harry. Mr. Mullett is the antithesis of Frost: always on the lookout for the political advantage; pressed and polished to the nth degree; and, constantly nosing in when it is most inconvenient bringing only problems, never solutions.

Yes, our Mr. Frost gets the job done. Maybe not with style, but done nonetheless.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Journey's End

Phyllis Gross Pearsall
Creator of London A-Z map
September 25, 1906-August 28, 1996
Mrs. P's Journey has come to an end.

The poorly written book drove me nuts as I have already expressed in previous posts. Putting that aside, I was impressed with Phyllis Pearsall's life as a businesswoman and a painter. She loved painting. Watercolors and oils. She and her husband of eight years (a very unsatisfactory marriage that ended quite suddenly when Phyllis left him in Venice) traveled and painted in Spain, France, and Italy. She eventually wrote a book about that time. In her later years, after she turned her map-making company over to her employees (it is still going) she would spend hours painting and at the drop of a hat would fly off to Paris, her brushes and paints just about the only things she would pack.

As for her A-Z map of London, it is said that she worked 18-hour days in the early 1930s walking the 23,000 streets of London and making note of house numbers, buildings, museums, bus and tram routes and the backest of alleys. Then came the indexing and alphabetizing of each street, avenue, mews, courtyard, alley, and lane. She accomplished this all before computers of course. In 1936, once W.H. Smith booksellers gave the map a try, Londoners flocked to buy her A-Z.  She carted the orders herself through the city. She was a hard worker and even after she was very seriously injured in a plane wreck in the late 1940s, she carried on.

She was a spry and spirited woman. Her motto: On we go.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Village Lights Bookstore

The Twain Room with its grand piano
at Village Lights Bookstore
Another weekend adventure. A road trip to Madison, Indiana, a small historic town located on the Ohio River. Lots of little shops and art galleries. I spent some time in one of the galleries. There were many oils, acrylics, watercolors, potteries, and wooden pieces on display -- all part of a regional artist show. It was nice to see all that talent in one place.

I also visited the locally owned bookstore - Village Lights Bookstore. (Get it? City Lights? Village Lights?) VL is a wonderful shop located right on Main Street with polished wooden floors, high ceilings, and two cats: Oscar Wilde and Grrrtrude Stein.

In the Twain Room, which is dominated by a grand piano - think extra display surface - are the non-fiction titles and a small art gallery. The fiction is shelved in the front of the store. Upstairs are biographies (I didn't make the trek). There is a small children's section and a fine display of regional authors' books.

The store is owned by Nathan and Anne. Anne told me that the store hosts poetry readings once a month, author signings and readings, and live music performances. Unfortunately, none of those were happening today.

I browsed for a bit but nothing caught my fancy. Maybe I was thinking of all the stacks of books back home that are waiting to be read.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mrs. P's Journey is wearing me down

Phyllis Gross's life just gets worse and worse. It is like reading mis know, misery lit...tales of family dysfunction, madness, alcoholism, mental, physical, and emotional abuse.

I find myself so irritated at the way the parents treated their children and each other. The fact that Phyllis turns out to be a spirited, artistic entrepreneur astounds me. She paints. She writes. She begins her own map publishing company. And yet she spent three to five weeks in Paris sleeping under a bridge because her parents couldn't be bothered to care for her. She marries a man, a mediocre artist, who is almost twenty years older than she is and who is jealous of her talent. That marriage lasts for eight years. And Phyllis - now Mrs. Pearsall - leaves her husband one morning while they are visiting Venice. Not a word of goodbye. Nothing like the many angry, tearful and dramatic goodbyes that she witnessed between her parents growing up.

Her leaving only opens her up to be ensnared by her mother's madness and incarceration in Bedlam, London's infamous mental hospital. There her mother, married to an alcholic American portrait painter, is subjected to tranquilizers, shock treatments, and solitary confinement.

Why does the abused, abandoned, and ignored Phyllis continue to return to her abusers for comfort? She is independent and was living and working on her own in France by the time she was 14. Continually deserted and then pulled back into her parents' chaos by a single telegram or plea for assistance.

I just keep thinking "If only her crazy parents would die, maybe she could get on with mapping the streets of London."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mrs. P's Journey

Now that I have toured England, Scotland and a bit of Wales with Bill Bryson, I am setting off on another journey. This one is with Phyllis Pearsall, the woman who created the A to Z map of London.

Phyllis was born in September 1906 to a Hungarian father and Irish mother. Her father was a self-absorbed, philandering bully. Her mother was a bit of a drama queen, had an artistic spirit, and stood up to her husband. He didn't like that at all. There were many domestic scenes with tears, shouting and slamming doors, and recriminations.

Not a happy childhood for Phyllis and her brother Tony who was a year older.

But there were other compensations as Sandor Gross, her father, was driven to make a success of himself and he did -- by starting a map-making business, The Geographica Company. Soon came wealth and privilege - travel, public schools (private in England), and fantastic gifts such as the baby elephant Phyllis received for her ninth birthday.

I am about 85 pages into the book. I must say that the author, Sarah Hartley, uses colorful language and a clever turn of phrase to bring Phyllis and her crazy family to life. But she also skips about in time and is a bit heavy on the foreshadowing. One minute I am with Phyllis as a ten-year-old in school and the next I am being told that 'such-and-such happened to her mother and would happen to Phyllis twenty-five years later.'

I am having a difficult time staying with the timeline of Phyllis's life.  I am ready to move on from her childhood and the stories of her parents' quarrels and infidelities. I will persevere because I adore maps and I feel that soon, when Phyllis takes over her father's company, I will learn just how she happened to draw up all of the 23,000 streets of London.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Fan Letter to Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson
Dear Mr. Bryson,

May I call you Bill?

I do so love that you love Britain. As a fellow American, I too am enraptured with The Mother Country.

Bill, in your Notes From a Small Island, you so captured the best - and the worst - that England has to offer. I can't agree with you more that when England is good she is very, very good - think tea and scones, The Queen, Oxford and Cambridge, lovely castles, soaring churches, and dramatic seacoasts. Not to mention her ancient hedgerows. Ooh, and the language.

But, oh my, when she is bad...well, you saw for yourself and ranted about it so eloquently: the architects and planners that tear down history and erect buildings that look like hardened vomit (one of your favorite words). The sameness of even the smallest towns with their Boots, M & S, and shopping malls that have replaced the local shops on the ubiquitous High Streets.

Alas, that is not just a British sin. As you know, much of America is quite ruined by corporate greed and stunted imagination.

I must admire your stamina in spending seven weeks on foot, train, bus, and auto (only when necessary) traversing the paths and mountains, fields and streams, of your adopted country. You are right; the Brits do love tromping about and don't let the rain or fog, sleet or hail, dampen their spirits.

As your amble took place over 20 years ago, I wonder if things are better or worse. Is John O'Groats still there at the top of Scotland? Would you still like Iverness and Edinburgh (even though Princes Street has been destroyed)? Are the trains still running? Is Durham still a wonderful town to visit? Do people still throng to the tacky seaside resort of Blackpool?

Not only did I laugh out loud at your rants, I learned from you. You throw in, in such an noble way, bits and bobs of local lore, tales of eccentric lives, and just plain foolishness.

I feel as if I have been walking and riding around the small island with you  - only I have no blisters on my toes. So thank you for the armchair journey.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More From Bill Bryson

From Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson--

On Britain's weather:

To an outsider the most striking thing about the English weather is that there isn't very much of it. All those phenomena that elsewhere give nature an edge of excitement, unpredictability, and danger --tornadoes, monsoons, raging blizzards, run-for-your-life hailstorms -- are almost wholly unknown in the British Isles, and this is just fine by me. I like wearing the same type of clothing every day of the year. I appreciate not needing air conditioning or screens on the windows to keep out the kinds of insects and flying animals that drain your blood or feast on your extremities while you are sleeping. I like know that so long as I do not go walking up Mount Snowdon in carpet slippers in February, I will almost certainly never perish from the elements in this soft and gentle country.

On Britain's accomplishments:

...and it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a remarkably small world Britain is.

That is its glory, you see -- that it manages at once to be intimate and small scale, and at the same time packed to bursting with incident and interest. I am constantly filled with admiration at this -- at the way you can wander through a town like Oxford and in the space of a few hundred yards pass the home of Christopher Wren, the buildings where Halley found his comet and Boyle his first law, the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, the meadow where Lewis Carroll strolled; or how you can stand on Snow's Hill at Windsor and see, in a single sweep, Windsor Castle, the playing fields of Eton, the churchyard where Gray wrote his "Elegy," the site where The Merry Wives of Windsor was first performed. Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Notes From a Small Island

I am thoroughly enjoying Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. It is the laugh-out-loud tale of his wanderings around Great Britain. He uses mainly public transport - bus and train - and walks an inordinate number of miles. I am getting blisters just thinking of his poor feet.

The book was published in 1995 and I recognize some of the places he visits. Some I have never heard of and am constantly referring to a map to see where he is. Here is a bit toward the beginning of the book when he is tramping about in the south coast. A rant on sand:

Much as I admire sand's miraculous ability to be transformed into useful objects like glass and concrete, I am not a great fan of it in its natural state. To me, it is primarily a hostile barrier that stands in between a parking lot and water. It blows in your face, gets in your sandwiches, swallows vital objects like car keys and coins. In hot countries, it burns your feet and makes you go "Ooh! Ah!" and hop in the water in a fashion that people with better bodies find amusing. When you are wet, it adheres to you like stucco, and cannot be shifted with a fireman's hose. But -- and here's the strange thing -- the moment you step on a beach towel, climb into a car, or walk across a recently vacuumed carpet, it all falls off.

For days afterward  you tip astounding, mysteriously undiminishing piles of it onto the floor every time you take off your shoes and spray the vicinity with quantities more when you peel off your socks. Sand stays with you longer than many contagious diseases. And dogs use it as a lavatory. No, you may keep sand as far as I am concerned.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


A friend and I were talking about books and other things today. It was a clear afternoon with a slight breeze and the front porch was the perfect place for a chat. She sipped lemonade; I enjoyed a latte.

She grew up on a dairy farm and now she and her husband and three children - well, two are away at college, so really there is just one boy at home - live on what is known as a hobby farm. They have three sheep, two goats, two or three hives of bees (she kindly brought me some fresh honey), a dog, a cat population that increases and dwindles, and sometimes they have hens wandering about. There are two ponds, a barn, a forest full of trees, and fencing surrounding the pasture where the sheep and goats graze.

I was telling her about one of the essays in E.B. White's One Man's Meat titled "Memorandum".

It was written in October 1941 and begins:

Today I should carry the pumpkins and squash from the back porch to the attic. The nights are too frosty to leave them outdoors any longer. And as long as I am making some trips to the attic I should also take up the boat cushions and the charts and the stuff from the galley and also a fishing rod that belongs up in the attic. Today I should finish filling in the trench we dug for the water pipe and should haul two loads of beach gravel from the Naskeag bar to spread on top of the clay fill. And I should stop in and pay the Reverend Mr. Smith for the gravel I got a month or two ago and ask him if he has seen a bear.

White's To Do list runs on for another five pages. There is the corn to husk, hen roosts to clean with a wire brush, plowing decisions to be made, nails and shingles to buy, and raking to do. One ought leads to another, one should reminds him of an additional task, one To Do spawns ten more.

I found this essay to be hilarious because it is exactly how my mind works. I am easily overwhelmed and just thinking of one or two tasks for the day leads to a Post-it note full of errands, which then translates into a list on a sheet of A5 paper that gets stuck into my calendar book; then I need a nap. And not one task is completed.

But back to my friend. I thought she could certainly identify with many of the essays in the book and especially this one because, as she well knows, no matter how much gets accomplished there is always one more task to do on the farm.

And now, unwittingly, I have added to her To Do list. I gave her the book to read.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Petals of Wisdom

 A few pearls, or should I say petals, from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel:

"Dorothy Miller lived in a block of flats next to Madame Tussaud's....The waxworks stood, mute in their celebrity. Dorothy hadn't been in there in years but she sensed their presence, keeping watch with her through the night. Queens and murderers, mistresses and presidents, their selves had long since died but their replicas remained, forever poised - a hand raised, eyes gazing nowhere. During the war they had been stored in an adjacent building. One night, in a bombing raid, the roof was blown off; when the rescue teams arrived they had stared, appalled, at the heap of limbs."


"Increasing years, of course, render us invisible as if in preparation for our eventual disappearance."


"Life was full of incomprehensible instructions. The manual for her video recorder was twenty pages long, in tiny print that only an ant could read."


"It had been a day packed with incident - a pedicure, new red sandals, a monkey bite, a handsome doctor. There had been many more images, however, that crowded Evelyn's head - a man washing his ox beside the petrol pump; a boy, balancing a tray of tea glasses, weaving through the traffic...more than this, much more. The street outside teemed with life; she didn't really have to go anywhere at all."


"Evelyn thanked him, though she couldn't imagine ever wearing a sari, nor an occasion special enough to warrant such a thing. Widows in India wore white ones, as if they were already ghosts. She was glad Christopher hadn't got her one of those."

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: The Book

I have a crush on Bill Nighy who plays Douglas in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
based on the book These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach
After waiting for three months, my name came up on the library reserve list for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which is really titled These Foolish Things) by Deborah Moggach. The movie (here) was such fun that I immediately put my name on the list for the book and now I have it and am enjoying it very much.

The story is about a group of retirees who leave England and relocate in Bangalore, India at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a somewhat faded residence left over from the days of the Raj. The individuals have come for various reasons but mostly because of reduced financial circumstances and the state of the health care system in Britain.

The book has pretty much the same characters but there is much more background given on each of them. We learn about grown children, husbands, and careers that weren't covered too much in the movie.  The story takes a clear look at the consequences of aging. Joints pop, hearing grows fuzzy, eyesight wavers, thoughts get confused, vulnerabilities appear. I laugh out loud while nodding my head in recognition of some of the symptoms.

But this is not a somber treatise on growing old. These folks have left the familiar for the very, very exotic and unfamiliar and most face the change with a very British stiff upper lip. Although some of them are not very likable - namely the coarse Norman Purse who is constantly on the lookout for a bit of romance (only that is not what he calls it) - they each have a way of dealing with the upheaval to their lives.

I don't often compare a movie to its book (one usually comes out on the short end of the stick), but there is enough of the book in the movie and the movie in the book to make it an enjoyable experience. Now I find I want to see the movie again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Pocket Full of Rye

That Agatha Christie. She fools me every time. I just finished reading A Pocket Full of Rye and was caught unawares as usual. The murders are based on the nursury rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

The first to be murdered is Rex Fortescue "in his counting house," the second is his wife "eating bread and honey," and the third is Gladys, the maid, who was "in the garden hanging out the clothes."

Suspects include two sons and their wives, a mysterious housekeeper, two lovers, a daughter, and of course a butler. It is all very classy and clever as usual. Miss Marple makes an appearance and solves the crimes along with some help from Inspector Neele.

A lovely bedtime read.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bell, Book, and Candle - The movie

Pyewacket and James Stewart in Bell, Book, and Candle

Much earlier in my blogging career - in fact, it was in March - I purchased the DVD "Bell, Book and Candle" (here). I was barely three months into creating this blog which is a play on that title.

Well, last night I finally got around to watching the movie starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. What a treat. I know this is a book blog, but the movie is about a way. It is based on the play written by British writer John Van Druten and was released in 1958 (making for some great outfits for Novak to wear).

Stewart plays Shepherd Henderson, a New York publisher. He lives above the shop/apartment of Gillian Holroyd (Novak) who is a witch with a familiar - her Siamese cat Pyewacket. Other characters include Jack Lemmon as her brother and warlock Nick, and Elsa Lancaster as their aunt Queenie, also a witch.

The story consists of Gillian casting a love spell on Shepherd and stealing him away from his fiance on the night before his wedding. Things go along smoothly for a while until Shep wants to marry Gillian. Of course a marriage between a witch and a human is unheard of but she is willing to give it a try. She tells Shep the truth about herself and in his fury he has the spell undone. But not to worry, falling in love has taken away Gillian's powers and all's well that ends well.

And now to the books. Shep's office has some lovely high shelves filled with books, I suppose the ones his firm has published. There is also a library ladder on wheels that adds to the bookish atmosphere. I only saw one title - Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham - and that was because it was face out. Shep's partner's name is Andy White. One of my favorite author's is E.B. White; his nickname was Andy. Don't you think that was a nod to him? I do.

In Gillian's apartment there is a bookcase that also serves as a drinks bar which gets lots of use. In Shep's apartment there are books piled on the fireplace mantel, on shelves, and on his desk along with typewritten manuscripts that he has brought home to read and review.

Ernie Kovac's plays a successful author, Sidney Ridlitch, that Gillian conjures up based on a comment by Shep that he would love to publish his next book; his first one being the bestseller Magic in Mexico. Now, Ridlitch wants to write a book about witches - "They are everywhere, you know; even right here in Manhattan."  Nick reveals to him that he is a warlock and offers to collaborate with him and let him in on all the witchy secrets and introduce him to all his witch and warlock friends. So we have a couple of scenes of both men hunched over typewriters (!) writing away.

One of my favorite lines comes in the scene where Pyewacket jumps onto Shep's shoulders which causes Shep's nose to itch and his throat to scratch. Shep says:

"Hasn't this cat got anything better to do? Couldn't you give him something to read?"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Reader Diagnostic Guide

Interior with artist's daughter
Vanessa Bell
Cornflower Books alerted me to this book reader diagnostic guide on The Atlantic Wire. Oh my. So many to choose from.

What kind of book reader am I? Well, I am definitely not The Hate Reader, The Chronological Reader, or The Book-Buster. And no way am I The Anti-Reader.

I find that I am a combination of The Delayed Onset Reader #1, The Bookophile, and The Multi-Tasker with a healthy dose of The Book Snob and The Devoted Reader.

What this all means is that I buy books that I don't always read right away. I love the touch, smell, and sight of books. I am probably reading more than one book at different times of the day and evening (non-fiction in the morning, a mystery before bedtime). I am hard to impress (you won't catch me reading Shades of Gray -- heck I can barely bring myself to even type the title!) and I respect my favorite authors and know they won't disappoint.

The descriptions of the types of reader are very clever and spot on. There are even suggestions for books that will appeal to each type of reader.

Take a look and let me know: What Type of Reader Are You?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Baseball and a Good Book

As someone who has found work to be highly overrated, I can't think of a better way to celebrate Labor Day than by attending an afternoon baseball game and then settling in to read a good book.

And, if I had white shoes, I would put them away.

Enjoy your day.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

An Artist Date

Romanian Blouse
Henri Matisse
Today, I took myself off to a place that I have never visited before: the Cincinnati Art Museum. I call trips like this an Artist Date after Julia Cameron's suggestion in her book The Artist's Way to take time once a week to explore, by myself, something that interests me.

What interested me at the Cincinnati Museum was a sketching studio that is held in one of the galleries on the first Sunday of every month. Aspiring artists don't even have to take supplies as the museum rolls out a cart filled with pencils, erasers, charcoal, sketch books and even small stools for the artists to sit on as they draw.

I took my own sketch book and captured a couple of faces: an American Indian woman, a small child wearing a white head scarf, and the portrait of a duchess. I also snagged a quick sketch of Matisse's "Romanian Blouse." I adore Matisse.

Before I began my sketching though, I wandered through a special exhibit of musical instruments from all over the world and I oohed and ahhed over the art vases manufactured by the Rookwood Pottery which was founded in Cincinnati in 1880 and is still in operation. I got lost in the warrens of galleries but finally found my way to the cafe for lunch. I did make sure to visit the British Gallery - in keeping with my English theme this month - and saw landscapes with brooding skies, portraits of rosy-cheeked children, and a few ceramic pieces all from the 18th and 19th centuries.

My favorite was an oil painting of a shepherd and his flock. It was unusual in that the shepherd was walking away from the viewer so I had a lovely view of the twenty of so bouncing rumps of the woolly sheep. Not your normal pastoral scene. It made me laugh.

It was a very successful artist date; I can't spend all my time reading.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Oh, To Be In England

Queen Elizabeth II
I have hoisted the book London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd back onto its place on the shelf. I am afraid that I will have to postpone starting such a tome until I can purchase a reading stand. It is much too heavy to hold.

But, I am still going to celebrate, in my own way, the Queen's Jubilee during September. I have quite a royal To Be Read list going.

My neighbor lent me a copy of Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island. As a longtime Anglophile, I look forward to chuckling over his observations of what makes Britain so very British.

I also have Mrs. P's Journey by Sarah Hartley that I bought in Stanford's in London a decade ago and have never read.  It is the story of Phyllis Pearsall who created the A-Zed map of London's streets.

I plan to linger in the gardens of Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols. This book is the first in a trilogy (I have them all) about his efforts to restore a Georgian house and its gardens after WWII. I have read this one before and can hardly wait to accompany Mr. Nichols down the garden path.

Of course, there are also all those lovely mysteries by Agatha Christie. I am reading one now on my Nook - A Pocket Full of Rye.

I envision many a lovely September afternoon sipping tea and reading about The Emerald Isle.

Long live the Queen.