What would life be like if you had high enough ceilings to fit in a mezzanine? Here are some suggestions of how to go about planning and decorating.
When I retire (or when I can finally move abroad, whichever comes first), my dream is to buy a large chateau or villa and use it as a retreat for writers, artists, musicians and so on. So here are some contenders. Shush, don’t tell me about the costs of renovating and maintaining such a property – Friday Fun is all about escapism, remember? (All of the pictures are from the Greenacres.fr site, which is my weekly does of escapism)
So, which region or building do you prefer for your artistic retreat? Book your place early!
Only three more years before I can start thinking about moving, although I doubt that I’ll be able to afford a house with such heavenly views as the ones below…
Alf Prøysen: Little Old Mrs Pepperpot
The first Mrs Pepperpot story appeared in 1956 in Norway, so I am using that date, rather than the 1959 date for its first English translation. Sadly, my 1984 Red Fox edition does not name the translator and only credits Hutchinson (publisher) for the 1959 translation.
This was one of the books that our teacher would read out loud in class while we were doing Arts and Crafts (others included Pippi Longstocking, the Moomins, Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga). I loved stories and hated being crafty, so unsurprisingly, I have fonder memories of the books than of the messy, glue-stricken ‘masterpieces’ I created. The Scandinavian book choices might seem surprising for a school that was so resolutely, old-fashionedly English, especially since all of them have a slightly anarchic tendency. Pippi is anti-school and anti-grown-ups, the Moomins and their friends often rush off and do strange things, while Mrs Pepperpot… Well, she seems to take the sudden shrinking to the size of a salt-and-pepper shaker in her stride, but she often does eccentric or even naughty things when she is that size. See for instance the chaos that ensues when she goes to the school bazaar – although you could argue that the snobbish smart ladies organising the bazaar deserve their come-uppance.
This first volume contains only five Mrs Pepperpot stories, while the remaining seven are more general, very short and often quite funny stories. Those too tend to subvert the given order: Mr Puffblow’s hat is blown away and becomes a boat for field mice; a fancy new doll longs to escape from the display case and get rough and dirty; little mice make their appearance in houses and wreak havoc.
However, I have to admit that, though charming, I did find the stories rather slight upon rereading. I think this is a book best enjoyed with 4-6 year olds.
Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword
Another book from my schooldays – this one and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr were the two mainstays of English children’s literature about the Second World War, but The Silver Sword appeared first. This book achieves that rare feat of depicting (then recent) history in such a way that children will both enjoy but also remember. It’s an adventure tale, as the three parentless children from the Warsaw ghetto set off across Europe as the war draws to an end, in an effort to rejoin their father, whom they believe to be in Switzerland. But it is also a story of friendship, sibling loyalty, courage and human kindness triumphing in the face of adversity.
Although many of the scenes are based upon factual research and period documents, the story is a bit too sanitised. I suppose it is intended for a young audience, but the idea of the soldiers in the Soviet army being all helpful and not at all observant of the fact that the oldest child is seventeen and a pretty girl… just doesn’t seem quite plausible. At least, not according to the stories my grandmother and great-aunts told me. And pretty much everyone they meet along the way is just so darn helpful. Even if this is after the end of the war, would deprivation have made people more or less willing to help?
However, there were some scenes that were remarkable and thoughtful: the long line of refugees and the chaos of trying to reunite families or the conversation between the children and the German farmers who provide them with shelter somewhere in Bavaria, whose sons would have been killing Poles on the front.
Once again, this didn’t quite live up to my fond memories of it, which just goes to show that perhaps childhood favourites are best left on the high shelf of nostalgia.
So these are my first two reads for the #1956Club of books published in 1956, hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I look forward to seeing what the others have found and reviewed. My next review will be of one of the first ‘ecological’ novels ever written, The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel) by Romain Gary. I’m about halfway through reading it now and have high hopes that it won’t disappoint me!
It’s time again for the monthly Six Degrees of Separation link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month Kate chooses a different book as a starting point and we all link to six other books to form some sort of thematic chain. This month we have a spooky start, namely the much-loved novella by Henry James The Turn of the Screw. I have to admit I’m not much of a ghost story fan, but this story has that frisson of not knowing quite what is going on, how much is imagination, how much is a disturbed mind, how much is supernatural.
Another story who does this creepy discomfort brilliantly is of course Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House has one particular bedtime scene which made me well and truly jump when reading it. I’d been looking forward to the TV series based on the book (‘a modern reimagining’ is what they called it), which came out in 2019, but found it rather disappointing and gave up after 2-3 episodes. There’s a second season of it as well just out now, which seems utterly uncalled for.
Speaking of unwanted second seasons or sequels or prequels, I have to admit I did not read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Although it was promoted as a sequel, it is more of an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I love, and I did not want to tarnish my memory of that book. I believe authors should be allowed to keep their first drafts secret.
Having said that, there is one exception. I will be eternally grateful to Max Brod that he did not burn Franz Kafka‘s work after his death, as his friend had asked him to do. I like all of his work, even his letters and diaries, but for the purposes of this month’s chain, I will choose his final (unfinished) novel The Castle.
There are lots of other books with ‘castle’ in the title, and quite a few of them rank amongst my all-time favourites (We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I Capture the Castle, Howl’s Moving Castle) but I’ve decided to link to a book that is virtually unreadable now, but when it was first published in 1764, it was such a massive hit that it gave rise to countless imitations and to a whole genre of literature, namely the Gothic novel. It is, of course, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Faux medieval atmosphere, implausible and complicated plot, relying heavily on coincidences and secret passageways, ghosts and more horror cliches than you can say boo to.
This is the type of novel lampooned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (although she specifically mentions The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, which appeared later), and what a great job Austen does of it! She mocks the current (in her time) obsession with all things Gothic, but is probably secretly somewhat fond of it herself. I wonder what she would have made of Horace Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill, which is a monstrosity of fake Gothic style that shouldn’t work at all… and yet is very endearing and even appealing to our present-day eyes.
I seem to have a bit of a manor house/castle theme going on this month, so for my last, very tenuous link, I will choose a writer who spent most of his childhood in a beautiful chateau close to where I used to live in France. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s chateau in Saint-Maurice-de-Rémens has now been bought by the region and will be renovated and transformed into a cultural centre. He mentions the property in his sort-of memoir Terre des Hommes (translated as Wind, Sand and Stars).
So my love for quirky properties and fancy chateaux has struck again. Where will October’s six degrees of separation take you?
… that made darkness itself appear a thing of comfort. (Robert Southey)
I dislike and fear the dark winter months, but luckily, working from home means I can go out for a brisk walk at lunchtime and actually see some light outdoors. For my escapist images, I chose the wonderful play of light and shadow inside houses.
Don’t have much room for words right now, but here are some houses with views that make me dream of escape.
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why, then this parting was well made. (Julius Caesar)
This Sunday we had to say goodbye to our dear Barney, the most sweet-natured and dignified of elderly gentlemen cats. I knew our time together might not be very long, but he seemed so alert, so lively, that we had hoped to get a few years at least. Sadly, it was not to be.
He was diagnosed with diabetes in August, and didn’t seem to mind the injections I was giving him twice daily. But then he stopped eating, his fur started getting scraggly, his urinary tract infection just wouldn’t go away. I was taking him to the vet every few days, adjusting his dosage, having him checked out, but towards the end of last week he barely had the energy to do anything other than sit under his favourite bush in the garden. Even Zoe, who has not been his greatest fan, was gentle towards him in his last few days.
It only takes a few seconds to fall in love, they say, and I fell in love with Barney’s sweet expression as soon as I saw it on Twitter. But it takes months and years to get to really know someone – and I wish we’d had that time to get to know each other fully. However, this is what we found out about him during the six months we had together.
He was a Zen master. Every couple of days, Zoe would make a run at him, and he never retaliated, merely lifted his paw on occasion in the gesture of a benign and wise Buddha.
He was a great helper for any cook. He would follow my every move in the kitchen with bright, intelligent eyes, as if asking: ‘What else can I do?’ (He would also search the floor very thoroughly for any fallen pieces of food.)
He didn’t come upstairs at all until the very last week before he got really ill. He had a deep miaow which he learnt to use most expressively when he wanted to be let out or some attention.
He was one of life’s natural philosophers. He loved sitting in the garden, breathing in the fresh air, stretching out in the shade.
He was a gentle giant, tall and thin, with big, manly back legs. He had a loping gait and was extremely agile for his age.
His favourite spots were: just in front of the fridge door or on the back of the sofa when we were all watching TV. Or sleeping on the sofa when we all wanted to sit on it.
He was extremely good at guilting you into giving him extra treats (although we desisted because of his health problems).
He was not a lap cat, which made it all the more special when he honoured me with his presence.
He had the most beautiful, profound eyes, a gaze that you could just drown in.
The house is just not the same without his quiet presence.
The nights are drawing in, even though I’m still in denial. So it’s time to start thinking of creating cosy spaces around the house where you can read, gather all your books and forget about the rest of the world.
In order to spare you book-length blog posts, I will do my summaries of films watched every month in two sessions: halfway through the month and at the end of the month. The first part of September saw us going out to the cinema (once), transfixed by the saddest season of The Wire and also debating some classics of world cinema. We have now set up a ‘film bowl’, i.e. a mixing bowl in which we’ve put pieces of paper with all of the films we have available to watch (on DVD or on various TV streaming services) and we pick them out of the bowl at the weekend.
I have to admit I went to see this one more as a test run for the cinema experience than for the film itself. The concept of time moving clockwise and anti-clockwise was interesting, but the film was too big, too loud (you couldn’t even hear important conversations above the explosive bangs) and too much of a cross between James Bond and The Night Manager to truly appeal. A lot was made of the locations, but the characters were just not given sufficient depth.
I was saying to my older son that Christopher Nolan had been much more creative on a smaller budget in his earlier work, Memento, and we had the opportunity to watch it on BBC2 a couple of nights ago. It certainly holds up in terms of clever storytelling, without feeling gimmicky, and still raises questions around the slipperiness of memory, small mistakes which can pass unnoticed but lead to much bigger mistakes, as well as lack of trust.
Older son, the film buff, unearthed this one – an animated film for grown-ups from the 1970s, called La Planète sauvage in the original French, directed by Rene Laloux and co-written by Roland Topor. On a planet called Tgan, the gargantuan blue humanoid Draags keep the relatively tiny humans called Oms as pets. However, some Oms remain undomesticated, live in the wilderness and rebel on occasion, so they are periodically slaughtered by the Draags. As you can imagine, this is a powerful allegory about slavery, exploitation and repression. The hand-drawn animation and inventive hybrid plants and animals on their island are like something out of Claude Ponti books, while the music is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Truly psychedelic effect!
Fantastic Mr Fox
I have mixed feelings about Wes Anderson films – I love the meticulous attention to detail and that slightly old-fashioned, arts-and-crafts look and feel of his films, but sometimes it feels like this is done at the expense of the content. However, in this instance, form and function blend together well, Anderson even added what might be called an existential twist to it regarding family relationships and creating your own identity (via the rivalry between Mr and Mrs Fox’s son Ash and the cousin who comes to visit).
Although the boys were moved by the film, they were not as shaken by it as I was when I first saw it. I don’t know if this is because the subject is now well-known, or if the memory of the Second World War and the pogrom is starting to recede. OS went to Auschwitz on a class trip and had visited Schindler’s factory in Krakow, so he recognised some of the places, but complained that Amon Goeth was too much of a cartoon villain. I had to gently explain that he was, if anything, even worse than depicted in the film, according to eyewitness accounts.
This was a bit of a disappointment – both to my sons and to me (I hadn’t seen it since the age of twenty, when I was studying Japanese). My sons thought it lacked pacing and was overacted. I tried to explain about the stylised acting of the Kabuki theatre, as well as the silent era of cinema in the West. Kurosawa certainly seems to be saying:’ Why should I explain things in words when facial expressions or music or a shadow flitting across a face can say so much more?’ It does feel as if the people are all acting ‘at’ each other, which I guess is the point in a film that is so much about lies, interpretation and, once again, reliability of memory.
The Wire Season 4
This was the season I expected would appeal most to the boys, and indeed they laughed at some of the classroom scenes. I’m not sure if they felt the indictment of poor parenting as deeply as I did. But the emphasis on testing and stats instead of actual learning, the lack of budgets for schools and the political manoeuvring around education sounded all too familiar. And it was so sad to see most of the boys unable to escape from their social environment and almost preordained career paths as criminals.