Thursday, 26 January 2012

David Hockney's purple trees

I went to see the new  David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy last week and in a way all I want to say is, 'Go and see it! It's amazing!'

But that's not terribly thoughtful or reflective. Maybe I find it hard to think of something careful to say because Hockney's new paintings have such an immediate impact - I didn't stand there thinking about them, dissecting his technique, or his repeated symbols of roads and hills, though they're there to be considered. I simply relished the experience of looking - it felt as though Hockney and I had set out on a sunny day on our bikes to explore the East Yorkshire landscape, and whenever we saw something beautiful or surprising, we'd stop, and while I looked at the view, he'd whip out his paints and capture it then and there.

In the exhibition there's one wall of thirty or so pictures, hung en masse - they cover the wall, and they're brilliant, in the sense of shining out at you. The colours are bright, vibrant, and often not at all realistic - but they are what you see when you're out there in a landscape. Hockney has painted the landscape we see, not its photographic image - and that's why I stood and simply grinned in recognition at his painting of Garrowby Hill, with its unfeasible drop and crimson fields - and why the log pile in Winter Timber is perfect in orange, next to its purple tree trunk.

By co-incidence, but proving Hockney's genius perfectly, a couple of days before I saw the Hockney, I took some photos in my own Wealden landscape.

They're pretty accurate - it was a cold day, mist was hanging in the bottoms, lining the hillsides. They're not bad pictures - but they in no way capture the joy of being there in the landscape. That's what Hockney does. His paintings are all about that feeling in your gut when you turn a corner and there's the stump of a tree sitting in a flash of sunlight - or when you puff up a hill, turn round at the top and look back down at the vast space laid out below you - or when you walk the same lane every day, and know every bush and every clump of grass, and the day the hazel catkins open, you smile because spring's on its way.

I bought some postcards from the exhibition to remind me of how happy it made me. I could never afford a Hockney for my own wall - I'll just have to look at my postcards and go for a walk instead.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

What I'm reading: Titus Groan

I've just decided to keep a list of everything I read this year on a page on this blog - there's the link to it, over on the right. It really is just a list - it could get completely out of hand if I were to try and comment on everything I read. So I'll be strict. A list it is.

But I have to say that I've just finished Titus Groan, which I bought because there was so much written about it last year, and I coveted the new illustrated edition. Having bought it, I persuaded my friends that they should read it too, so that we could discuss it in the pub.

So I owned a new hardback book (a rare event indeed), and had committed to read it by this Saturday, when we're all getting together to talk about it. And I have to admit that had I borrowed the book from the library, and never mentioned it to anyone else, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

It reminds me of those worlds we used to create as children out of mud, and sticks, and leaves - complex landscapes with houses, castles and rivers, through which we would move our little plastic people - cowboys and indians, soldiers, knights - making them fight, track each other, sleep and die, on a whim. Peake's characters feel no more real to me than our plastic knights with their broken swords. He almost entirely reveals their character through their names and physiques (Swelter, the vastly overweight cook; Flay, the dried up twig of a servant) - apart from a joyous and surprising interlude mid-way when several characters are given internal monologues. They're as quickly tidied away again, and we're back to characters being moved about the castle and landscape, their author's fingers only just invisible.

And blimey, it's over-written - here's one small example, from two thirds through the book, as Keda walks through the landscape:
Between the path she walked and the range of mountains was a region or marshland which reflected the voluptuous sky in rich pools, or with a duller glow where choked swamps sucked at the colour and breathed it out again in sluggish vapour. A tract of rushes glimmered, for each sword-shaped leaf was edged with a thread of crimson.
It's magnificent in a way, but there's only so much of this dense, adjective-strewn writing that I can take (or enjoy, at least), and this is the way Peake writes almost all of the time.

And yet I'm glad I perservered. It's been an experience. It was like going back to live again in my childish worlds where the physical landscape had a huge and unknowable strength and power and potential for magic and surprise. Where an earl could perfectly reasonably turn into an owl. Where a tower could be evil. Where a doctor absolutely should be called Prunesquallor. I'm not sure I'm ready for part two yet, though. I've promised myself a nice little short story or two first. Preferably of the lean type.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Mumma's big old cookiebook

I'm not a hoarder (hmm, maybe I am when it comes to books), but I've just spent a peaceful couple of days at the kitchen table with my recipe book and a cardboard crate of loose recipes. Some of them have been there for more than fifteen years - and every time I opened my office cupboard they looked at me accusingly. It was time to sort them out.

The summer before I left for university, I sat at my mum's kitchen table copying my favourite recipes from her handmade book into my own new blank one.

That was thirty years ago, and I still use it all the time - I've added recipes from friends, clippings from the paper, and I've written notes all over it: 'Isobel made these for Mum's birthday - really good.', 'A 17lb turkey took 51/2 hours!', 'half this!'. Almost every recipe is a reminder of a meal, a close friend, or a brief acquaintance. There's elderflower champagne, from someone I worked with for a year or so, with whom I'd admired that spring's frothy crop of flowers. A boyfriend wrote a handy conversion table on the inside back cover. My daughter made a thick cardboard cover to protect the book, and wrote 'Mumma's BIG old cookiebook' on the front. The oldest pages are held together with enough drips of butter and dollops of cake mix to sustain a whole family should we ever get desperate.

This is more than a recipe book - it's a record of my whole adult life, from student (stuffed heart, anyone?), to earnest vegetarian twenty-something (soyabean curry - still not a top favourite, I have to admit), our early years of penniless marriage (lots of potatoes and lentils), small children (Dutch pancakes for after school - though a drink and a biscuit was more likely if I'm honest), family Christmases (just how many potatoes and sausages do fifteen people eat?), increasingly large children (lots of potatoes again, and even more pasta), to today - I've just pasted in a recipe for strawberry meringue roulade, in the optimistic hope that next summer I'll (a) have some strawberries left after the mice have ravished the veg patch and (b) have time to make something so frivolous. There are three blank pages left in the middle, so I've bought a new book - volume two is on its way.

Even better, last summer, my son and I sat down at the kitchen table, and together we began his recipe book. He took it with him to university this September and he tells me he already has a stack of recipes from his flatmates which he'll stick in one day ...