Saturday, 28 September 2013

Bowes Museum

Last Sunday we went to Bowes Museum, near Barnard Castle in County Durham. It has been one of my favourite places since I went there on a school trip as a child. The building is fabulous - a French chateau dropped into the beautiful countryside of Teesdale. It was established by John and Josephine Bowes as a purpose built museum to house their extensive collection of art and artifacts. It was first opened to the public in 1892.

The most famous piece, and the emblem of the museum is the Silver Swan, a clockwork automoton dating from 1773. John and Josephine first saw it at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. Another fan of the swan, who saw it at the same exhibition, was Mark Twain. He wrote in The Innocents Abroad;
'I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes - watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...'
We saw that exact same thing last Sunday, almost 150 years after Mark Twain did. The sophisticated 21st century audience still gave a round of applause when the swan swallowed the fish!

There is lots to see in the museum, but we had gone specifically to see two temporary exhibitions; Henry Poole & Co. Founder of Savile Row: The Art of Bespoke Tailoring and Wool Cloth, and Laura Ashley, Romantic Heroine.

Henry Poole & Co. was opened in 1806 and established Savile Row as the centre for bespoke tailoring in London.
Their customers included Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and Edward VII. They have their customer ledgers from 1846, and some of them were on view, open at the pages of their famous clients. When Edward VII was Prince of Wales he asked Henry Poole & Co. to cut a short, blue evening coat for him. This garment is said to be the original dinner jacket (tuxedo in the US).
They hold Royal Warrants still, including the Royal Warrant for the Queen's State Livery.  The exhibition showed various styles of suits, and also explained the process of making a bespoke garment. There were fabric sample books available so we could feel the wonderful quality of the material used in these garments.

The Laura Ashley exhibition showed, in the company's 60th year, almost 100 examples of Laura Ashley dresses from the 60s and 70s.
There was very little about the company or Laura Ashley herself, the focus was entirely on the frocks. I absolutely loved the way this exhibition was staged. The dresses were packed together in two blocks, and the information about them was at floor level so there was no obstruction to viewing them. It was very simple and effective. What amazed me about the dresses was how much they harked back to earlier centuries. Some of them looked Regency, others looked like something Laura Ingalls would've worn on the prairie. Many of
them looked quite restrictive with high collars and tight sleeves. I was puzzled as to why, after women's fashion had become so much more free in the 60s, women would choose these styles again. I wouldn't particularly want to wear most of the dresses, but I did like the prints.

It had been 5 or 6 years since I last visited the Bowes Museum and I certainly won't be leaving it that long again. It's the kind of place where there is always something new to see, and things that have been there all the time that you never noticed before.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

The main character in this book is Kate Daniels, a Detective Chief Inspector with Northumbria Police.
A man is found murdered in an expensive flat in Newcastle, and the case becomes the first one in which Kate is Senior Investigating Officer. She is more than ready for the challenge, but she is also haunted by an unsolved murder earlier in the year. It affected her quite personally and she can't let go of it. It is very important to her to solve this new case, it seems like she has something to prove to herself.

Things get off to a bad start when she recognises the dead man. She should immediately disclose this fact, but she doesn't. It's a split second decision she makes to protect someone she cares about. It's a decision she regrets but events move quickly and there doesn't seem any way back from it. She sees connections between this murder and the unsolved one - but is she just seeing what she wants to see? Kate Daniels is a very capable police officer but her personal feelings are pulling her off course.

This is the first book in a series and as such there are a lot of characters to meet and get to know. I didn't feel out of my depth reading it though, I wasn't overloaded with information which I sometimes find happens with police procedurals (the fault of my concentration - not the genre). Kate Daniels is a very appealing character and I liked her. I liked that she is good at her job, and respected by her colleagues. We get to see some of her personal life, and it's going through a bit of messy phase, as most people's lives do at some point. But it's not so messy that the reader is left wondering how on earth she manages to hold down a responsible job.

Another thing I really liked about it is how Mari Hannah portrays the North East. I think that often it is portrayed as a hard, gritty place, but there is so much more to it. I particularly liked this bit;

The air was fresh as she ran down her street and out on to the main road, turning left a few minutes later, skirting the edge of Jesmond Dene, a Victorian park covering actres of woodland, presented to the city in the late nineteenth century by local philanthropist, Lord Armstrong. Had it been daylight she would've taken in the beauty of this hidden gem: the network of paths and bridges, the waterfall, the mill, all enclosed within a deep narrow valley. The fabulous scenery drew locals and tourists in droves - five minutes and yet a world away from a thriving party city.

The next in the series is Settled Blood and I look forward to reading it and learning more about Kate Daniels and her colleagues.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

When the fair comes to town

Every September a fairground appears right outside our front door. We live close to what was the village green, though a middle sized town grew up around it during the twentieth century. Last weekend bunting appeared on the lamposts and trees, on Wednesday the car park was closed off and the bigger fairground rides started arriving. By the time Billy came out of school on Friday afternoon most of it was in place, including the huge marquee which houses the charity raffles and tombolas, the craft stalls and the flower and produce show.

Billy looks forward to this weekend all year. I suppose eventually he'll become jaded, but at 9 years old it is magical for him. I think he feels quite proprietorial about it as he watches it grow over a few days.  We always enter the handicrafts competition, and this year I've put some carrots that I've grown in my garden into the novice class at the horticultural show.

At 7.30 this morning, two and half hours before anything actually opened, Billy and I were wandering around the rides.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

RIP8main200As I was reading Beyond Black I was thinking 'How can I be enjoying this?' It is such dark subject matter, sometimes relentlessy grim and yet I really, really enjoyed it. Part of it is Hilary Mantel's wonderful writing, of which I was already a fan and also because it's interspersed with little bits of humour which sneak up and lift the mood.

The main character is Alison, who works as a medium on the showbiz circuit in south-east England. She is a warm character, very professional and very gifted. Her past is almost unimaginably horrific. Her childhood was spent with her prostitute mother and the string of low-life men who used their house as a meeting place. She was sold and abused and witness to constant violence. It is difficult to imagine a more destructive and chaotic background. Somehow she has come through it, though not without damage. Her spirit guide is Morris, one of the men who hung around her mother. He's a disgusting character, malevolent and cruel and self-pitying. Then the rest of the men troop along in spirit;

"Morris said, 'Have you seen MacArthur, he's a mate of mine and Keef Capstick, he is a mate of Keef's too. Have you seen MacArthur, he is a mate of mine and he wears a knitted weskit. Have you seen MacArthur, he has only one eye, have you seen him, he has one earlobe ripped off, a sailor ripped it off in a fracas, that's what he tells people. How did he lose his eye? Well that's another story. He blames that on a sailor too, but round here we know he's lying.' And Morris gave a dirty laugh."

Into Alison's life comes Colette. Alison employs her as a live-in assistant and she takes care of the financial side of the business. A disappointed woman, verging on bitter, Colette struggles to fit in the world of mediums and spiritualism. Alison's life is complicated, there are layers and layers to it, whereas Colette seems to be a very literal and surface person. Perhaps Alison feels that having Colette in her life will anchor her. However chaos creeps closer and closer and in the end it is only Alison who can deal with it.

Surprisingly I didn't find this a spooky book (and I am very easily spooked!) It's full of spirits and ghosts and manifestations but they're dealt with in such a matter of fact way that they seem perfectly normal. The mediums are businesswomen, some are more gifted than others, but they're all looking for new business ideas or new marketing schemes. They're family to each other out on the fringes of society. Colette is on the fringes of society too, mainly due to her somewhat abrasive personality, but she desperately wants to be conventional. Conventional is something Alison and her friends have no experience of, and no desire for.

I mentioned that I had just finished this book in the comments of another blog and it was suggested that I read Mantel's memoir Giving Up The Ghost, as it is quite illuminating regarding Beyond Black. I've ordered it at the library and can't wait to read it.