December 30, 2012
I’ve spent the time between Christmas and New Year visiting family and friends, sitting by the fire, eating too much, and having a lie-in in the mornings (very enjoyable). Today I went to a family lunch at my parents’ place, and took a picture of this painting I did in my teens, which they still have hanging in their kitchen. You can see the reflection of the trees outside the house in the glass. Where they live, by the Thames in Wiltshire, is currently surrounded by water. Thankfully they haven’t yet been flooded.
Yesterday, I went for a walk to the barrage at Cardiff Bay, which I thought would make a great location for a future novel in my crime series- the road becomes a bridge that is raised for shipping coming into the harbour from the sea. A terrifying chase, getting trapped as the bridge goes up in the air, would make a great set piece. Watch this space. On the Penarth side of the barrage is a lovely old hotel which has sadly been left to rot, while any number of dull modern houses have been built round the marina nearby. I’m told there are plans to revamp the hotel but if they leave it any longer it’ll fall down.
December 23, 2012
Last week, I went to the film Amour Michael Heneke. It’s well worth seeing for the two central performances, by Jean-Louis Trintignan and Emmanuelle Riva, who play a couple of retired music teachers (Georges and Anne) in their eighties, and also the appearance by Isabelle Huppert, playing their self-involved daughter. The story revolves around what happens when Anne has a stroke and becomes helplessly dependent on Georges, as she moves slowly towards death. The couple become marooned in their elegant but crumbling Paris apartment, Georges struggling to cope with the situation on his own. The film was a serious look at the bleak way in which all our lives inevitably end, in pain and misery, unless we meet a violent or sudden death – which actually began to seem an attractive alternative by the end of this film. I did respect the director’s ambition to tackle the subject so courageously, and despite its many long, slow passages, the film was thoroughly absorbing. However, I almost felt the director took a sadistic pleasure in revealing the horror of death, denying us any comforting thoughts about what surely, at least sometimes, must lighten the load – a certain kind of black humour, the support of family and friends, for instance. I couldn’t help comparing the relationship with another one I’ve been following recently – that of Hank and Marie in the brilliant TV series Breaking Bad. Hank isn’t dying, but he’s become severely disabled and thoroughly bad-tempered, while Marie’s reaction to the stress of the situation has taken the form of kleptomania. As ever in the series, even the bleakest of situations is leavened by moments of surreal hilarity. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference: the French couple were heroic, reserved, stoical, while the Americans alternated between being vile-tempered, mentally unbalanced, and touchingly demonstrative. I rather preferred the American way.
Death reared its ugly head again in an exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London, which I visited as a jolly Christmas outing this week. I very much enjoyed it. It was mostly to do with skeletons, which somehow seem to have a reckless, cheery quality about them as they rattle their bones and grin. The most memorable effigy, I thought, was a tau tau, an Indonesian ‘grave guardian’ which really had a strange, otherworldly quality about it. There were some gruesome works about war by Otto Dix and Goya but overall the collection was quite a tonic, I found – if only because it made me appreciate the fact that I’m still in the land of the living.
December 16, 2012
At this time of year I always get a visit from Johnny Onions. Johnny Onions is a Frenchman (not always the same one) in a beret who sells onions from a bicycle. The onions come in a long, fat rope that you can hang up in the kitchen. They’re really good – very fresh, not dried out like most supermarket onions, with a slight pinkish tinge. The sellers come from Brittany and Normandy, I’m told, and bring the onions over directly after the harvest. Apparently most of the sellers stopped coming over to Britain in the 1970s, but they’re still a common sight in Cardiff at the beginning of winter. Today I made a ratatouille with them for lunch.
According to Nigel Slater, the trick with ratatouille is to fry each of the vegetables separately on the hob (first the onions, then the aubergines, courgettes, peppers) before laying them together in a roasting dish with some sliced fresh tomatoes and putting them in the oven for about forty minutes. He says they are much tastier if you do it this way, as all the flavours are distinct – he’s right. Though it’s more like roasted veg than ratatouille.
December 9, 2012
I went to an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, where they were showing many of their best twentieth-century Welsh artists such as Gwen John, David Jones, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, as well as some great contemporary artists. This was partly research for my new novel, which is set in the art world, and partly just because I like looking at paintings. Some of them were actually affordable, or would be if I had a bit of cash to spare. My favourite was a small deer by David Jones, whose work I love – he was a mate of Eric Gill, and lived in a lay community at Capel-y-Ffin in the Black Mountains. Maybe if my new book does well, I’ll buy it.
Of the contemporary artists, I liked Vivienne Williams, who reminds me of Ben Nicholson, who is one of my favourite artists. I’d really love to get back to painting myself – I haven’t done any for years – but I don’t know if I’ll ever find the time.
The national museum here has some fabulous paintings, my favourites being the Cezannes, which make me think of the year I spent in Aix-en-Provence as a student. Currently, they’re showing a bunch of Turners that were deemed to be fakes after being bought by the Davies sisters at the turn of the twentieth century. The sisters were spinsters, daughters of a coal baron, who collected cutting-edge art of the period and donated it to the museum. Apparently new techniques of analysing paintings now show that these Turners are the real thing, so they’ve been hauled up from the vaults. They’re pretty amazing. That figure in the painting below is just a couple of blobs of paint. Also shown in the exhibition are some letters breaking the news to the sisters that all their dosh had been wasted. Imagine their disappointment. If only they’d known the experts of the day were wrong.
December 2, 2012
The garden is soggy and slimy after all the rain here in Wales, but thankfully we haven’t been flooded. We’ve had a sudden show of winter flowering jasmine over the door to the ‘shed’ where I work. I really recommend this shrub, it requires almost no attention except clipping back about once a year. Also my fatsia japonica is going great guns, with pretty candle-like flowers. I pick these at Christmas to use for a table decoration with some baubles,etc. Again, just needs pruning now and then, very easy to do as the wood is very soft. The only drawback to this shrub is that in summer, flies seem to gather on it, but if you cut it right back, shouldn’t be a problem.