Saturday, 28 November 2009

The V&A Book Club

Recently, I set up a book club at work with the help of some colleagues, one of whom you may know as Book Snob. It is very democratic as we all put book suggestions into the hat and we all bring cakes to share around - cake is essential for fuelling literary discussion. Last Wednesdays' choice was Being Dead by John Crace which, although a short book, sparked a lot of lively discussion and I came away with lots of new ideas to think about.

Being Dead is a lyrically written examination of death. The two middle-aged protagonists are murdered in the sand dunes where they first had sex together. They are both scientists, complex characters and die in a horrific way - together. It is this togetherness that is the guiding light within, what would otherwise be, quite a depressing read.

Although, would this be depressing if it weren't for the fact that we are not at peace with death? We cannot handle our own mortality and we tend to move away from confronting our fragility - essentially we are all on our way to the end of our lives. We are powerless over our own deaths as Crace starkly shows us. Crace also highlights the arbitrary nature of death - we never know when our last day will be or how we will die and his character Celice was killed mid-sentence, in full flow and in her prime.

Joseph and Celice are an ordinary married couple going about their lives. Celice is bored and disappointed and she is still trying to find her way through life. Joseph is quiet, a bit odd and loves his wife. He wakes up on his last day with an overwhelming desire to go back to where they first met and romantically rekindle their sexual spark in the location of their first passionate encounter. It is this amalgamation of their ordinariness and their going on a special trip that makes their death, and the manner of their death, more stark as they are cut down in the midst of a sacred and fragile act.

The fragility of their love-making is transposed onto the fragility of their very being - in minutes they are both dead and nature, science and ultimately fact, start to take over, but perhaps it is not as depressing as it may seem. Joseph and Celice are united in death:
Joseph's grasp on Celice's leg had weakened as he'd died. But still his hand was touching her, the grainy pastels of her skin, one fingertip among her baby ankle hairs. Their bodies had expired, but anyone could tell - just look at them - that Joseph and Celice were still devoted. For while his hand was touching her, curved round her shin, the couple seemed to have achieved that peace the world denies, a period of grace, defying even murder.
It is the 'period of grace' which is presented to the reader throughout the novel. Their bodies are not sanitised by our rituals of death such as cleaning, make-up and disinfectant. Instead, Joseph and Celice are allowed, for a time, to blend with nature - to become part of the natural processes of life and death.

The book is at times an uncomfortable read, Crace goes into the detail of decomposing bodies at great length (maybe I just have a weak stomach) but the novel has stayed with me and made me consider my own mortality and how I think about death.

I would never have chosen to read this book had it not been for the V&A Book Club; which is entirely the purpose of a book club - to encourage us to pick up books we wouldn't have done ordinarily. I try to keep my reading horizons broad but, I admit, I do read a lot of early twentieth century literature so the book club has led me down a new reading path and I am looking forward to our meeting next month.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The bell chimes again

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Firstly, apologies for my absence. The past two weeks have flown by and I have not had a minute to spare and any seconds that I have found have, of course, been spent reading. Once I was over the flu, work and life took off and I am currently doing two part-time courses at City University which are enjoyable but with a full time job, blog, friends and family something is going to be neglected and sadly, it has been Bloomsbury Bell.

In the midst of the chaos I did manage to go away to Oxfordshire for the weekend for flu recovery and an escape from the madness of my diary at the moment. We visited the new Ashmolean which, was truly stunning and the perfect escape from the driving wind and rain which greeted us on the morning of our trip. The museum does not only provide a refuge from the weather but from the hustle and milieu of the Oxford shopping streets which, on a Saturday, were heaving.

The new galleries are light, spacious and full of the Ashmolean's wonderful collection which spans centuries of archaeology and art. Instead of a warren of gloomy galleries all leading further into the bowels and depths of the building, the new galleries invite panoramic views, space and light so you can stand in a gallery and see into many rooms at the same time as this photo shows.

Walkways pepper the building so you catch glimpses of other visitors in various parts of the space.

I particularly liked the paintings galleries as they have a great collection of medieval art and also a room dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite movement which included this stunning portrait of Jane Morris, entitled Reverie, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The muted, autumnal colours and thoughtful pose of Jane Morris make this portrait utterly enchanting. I have always wanted pre-raphaelite hair, but sadly I have poker strait, boring hair which refuses to conform to any sort of style. So, standing in front of this beautiful portrait in the Ashmolean my mind did not soar to higher plains - I was thinking about my hair.

Once I had moved on from my vain navel-gazing I found The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello which is an extraordinary study in perspective as it completely draws the viewer in to the centre of the action. The colours are still so vibrant considering it was painted in 1470.

During the trip I found a rival for my favourite library - previously written about
here - as we discovered the village of Bampton which has the prettiest little library that I have ever seen.

I can easily imagine spending hours in there with the rain pattering on the window and the cosy cardigan wearing librarian stamping and cataloguing books. The library was closed when we arrived but I had a good look in through the windows and saw comfy reading chairs and a delightful childrens area. Paradise.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Lady Lazarus

Lady Alexandra Curzon (Baba)

For the past few days I have been bedridden with one of those seasonal viruses which make everything except sleep and watching rubbish telly, impossible. The title of this post alludes to the title of Plath's poem Lady Lazarus but I thought it was fitting as I had been reading so much about the upper classes before I fell ill. Thankfully, I have been well enough to read today and have continued to be gripped by Anne De Courcy's biography of the three Curzon sisters, The Viceroy's Daughters.

Irene, Cimmie and Baba were the three daughters of Viceroy Curzon and were born during a time when the British upper classes were at their ruling zenith. Irene was born in 1896, Cimmie (Cynthia Blanche) was born in 1898 and Baba (Alexandra Naldera) was born in 1904. Their mother Lady Mary was the daughter of an extraordinarily rich American, Levi Ziegler Leiter. Due to Leiter's wealth all three Curzon sisters were heiresses of a vast sum of money.

The biography charts their lives and is a fascinating insight into the lives of the wealthy during the early twentieth century. Cimmie was the first wife of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and the book delves into both the rise and demise of this murky political party. The lives of the three sisters are set against the backdrop of the wider goings on within society at the time, as much to contextualise their lives as because their lives were entwined with many political leaders of the day.

What startled me was the extent of the bed hopping that occurred between the higher levels of society. They were apparently insatiable in their extra-marital appetites. It seems that as long as no one openly spoke about it, anything went.

This is a fantastic read to transport you to the glamour, glitz and gossip of the first half of the twentieth century and was exactly what I needed to help me recuperate.