Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day in Brighton

This video of Brighton was shot off the cuff today by Nicky Davidson. You can see it here.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Bright and Busy Christmas London

Getting to the London Library this evening involved taking the Underground to Leicester Square and then walking across to Piccadilly Circus, into Regent Street St James (until recently known as Lower Regent Street but that seems to have been bad for trade) and so into Jermyn Street and left to the Library in St James' Square.

Other times I might take the Underground to Piccadilly Circus or Green Park or I might take a bus or walk.

The streets are especially bright and busy during these evenings leading up to Christmas.  These are a few photographs I took with my smart phone along the way.

Leicester Square

Piccadilly Circus seen from the top of Haymarket.

Heading from Piccadilly Circus into Regent Street St James.

Looking down Regent Street St James.
Jermyn Street is on the immediate right.

After visiting the Library I enjoyed the quiet walk along Jermyn Street, fairly quiet even at Christmas though its environs are home to some of the best shops in London.

Not that I do my weekly shopping along Jermyn Street but at Christmas especially I like to look in on the wonderful biscuits and cakes and chocolates at Fortnum and Mason or step into Paxton and Whitfield, the atmosphere sharpened by hundreds of cheeses.

Up and down at Fortnum and Mason.

Shopping for Christmas cakes and pies and chocolates
at Fortnum's in Piccadilly, round the corner from Jermyn Street.

Cheeses trembling with expectation at Paxton's.

The shop window of Paxton's in Jermyn Street.

By the way, Sir Isaac Newton lived in Jermyn Street, at number 87, almost next door to the cheeses.

Big Cheese.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Christmas at The Ritz

I suddenly noticed the approach of Christmas this evening as I was walking from the London Library to Green Park underground station and passed along the front of the Ritz.

Monday, 31 October 2016

All Hallows' Eve at St John's Hampstead Parish Church

This afternoon on the eve of All Saints' Day I visited the dead at St John's Hampstead parish church.

As I often do I first went down the path to see John Constable.  I enjoy his clouds and his skies.

And then I walked back up the slope to say hello to John Harrison who did more for the good of mankind in the eighteenth century than almost anyone alive.

Not by war nor adventure but by patiently making clocks.

On one side of the church are the more established dead, Constable, Harrison, also a relative by marriage of Jane Austen, whom the Jane Austen Society has made a fuss of and has cleaned up her grave, and many others whose inscriptions are worn away or hidden behind leaves and shrubs.

And on the other side of the church, across the road, are the newcomers.

Elsa Collins, for example, mother of Joan and Jackie Collins.

The actor Anton Walbrook.

The actress and comedian Kay Kendall, wife of Rex Harrison.

The writer George du Maurier.

And the prime minister who never was, Hugh Gaitskell.

All Saints' Day is a Christian festival celebrating all the saints, known and unknown.  More anciently it is the day when one remembers the dead, who are so many.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Secret References in The Durrells Television Series

Lawrence Samuel Durrell, father of the family who died in 1928.

I have noticed in The Durrells television series several insider references, things that only a very few people of the audience would recognise, a kind of knowing wink - 'We know and you know even if it means nothing to everyone else'.

One of these occurs twice in the first episode when Mother picks up a photograph of her dead husband.  There was no need to show the photograph to the audience and probably no need for it to be really a photograph of Lawrence Samuel Durrell.  But the photograph is shown and it really is the father of the Durrell family, the missing presence which in a sense lies behind their journey to Corfu, a journey of healing.

Margo sunbathing on a rock.
Another insider reference is the scene where Margo goes sunbathing.  In The Corfu Trilogy this happens near Mouse Island off Perama, south of Corfu Town. 
No sooner had Margo landed and arranged herself attractively on a rock then he would come stamping down the long flight of stone steps that led up to the church, shaking his fist at her, and mouthing incomprehensible Greek from the depths of his long, unkempt beard. Margo would always greet him with a bright smile and a cheerful wave of her hand, and this generally made him almost apoplectic with rage.
Margo accosted by the monk.
But in The Durrells television series the scene is filmed not at Mouse Island but in the north of Corfu near Kalami where Larry lived with his wife Nancy. The scene is two coves south of Kalami below the shrine of St Arsenius.

Larry's 1930s photograph of the shrine of St Arsenius.

Readers of Larry's book about Corfu, Prospero's Cell, will recall the shrine of St Arsenius, for it was here that he and Nancy would come to be out of the way, to swim and lie on the rocks unseen.
Causality is this dividing floor which falls away each morning when I am back on the warm rocks, lying with my face less than a foot above the dark Ionian.   All morning we lie under the red brick shrine to Saint Arsenius, droppig cherries into the pool - clear down two fathoms to the sandy floor where they loom like drops of blood.  
I reckoned that my neighbour Simon Nye, the scriptwriter and co-producer of the series, had dropped these references in, so I went round to see him and asked, but he knows nothing about it.  Maybe it was his co-producer Sally Woodward Gentle or, who knows, maybe the cinematographer who slipped in the references without telling anyone that they are there, a one-man secret.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Magical House

The front of the house.
On Thursday I went to Bournemouth where, among other things, I had a look at this unremarkable house.

I stood for a while and looked at the front.  And then I walked to the garden at the back.

And I gazed up at the rooms under the roof.

The back of the house.
And I cast my mind back sixty years to the house as it was then. When there were chimpanzees wandering round the house, inside and out.

Chomley the Chimp at the back of the house.
And when a young man sat up at the top of the house, writing in long hand his book about his childhood in Corfu.

Some family and friends at the front of the house.  Gerald Durrell is on the right.  The woman on the left is Margo Durrell; she was the owner of the house which was always open to her brother and an animal or two or ten or more.
The book was My Family and Other Animals.  The house is at 51 St Alban's Avenue in Bournemouth.  The chimpanzees living in the garden behind the house were the first denizens of what would become a world famous zoo.

This is the sort of thing that happens in nondescript houses here and there in England if you know where to look. Magic happens.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Durrells in America

This report in The Christian Science Monitor announces the arrival of The Durrells in Corfu series in America this autumn.  Click here to read the article as it appears online.  And click here to see The Durrells in Corfu on the PBS website.

Lunch in Corfu.

 'The Durrells in Corfu': PBS adapts Gerald Durrell’s 'Corfu' trilogy

Gerald Durrell was a British naturalist whose passion for animals blossomed when his oddball family, headed by his widowed mother, decided to leave England for Greece, hoping for milder weather, new adventures, and a cheaper cost of living.
    This Sunday night, public television’s Masterpiece Theatre begins “The Durrells in Corfu,” a six-part adaptation of c that will run each week through November 20. Drawn from three humorous memoirs of Gerald Durrell’s childhood years on the Greek island shortly before World War II, the new Masterpiece series is inspired by Durrell’s stories but only loosely based on them.

    That’s all the more reason for readers to check out Durrell’s books for themselves. Gerald Durrell was a British naturalist who lived between 1925 and 1994. He was always interested in animals, but his passion blossomed when his oddball family, headed by his widowed mother, decided to leave England for Greece, hoping for milder weather, new adventures, and a cheaper cost of living.

    The young Durrell found Corfu a paradise of plants and animals, and the experience helped him grow into a world-renowned zoologist, wildlife preservationist, and nature TV host for the BBC.  He also became a popular author, penning some two dozen books about his zoological adventures, of which his Corfu books are the centerpiece.
    A primary theme of Durrell’s sharply funny narratives – think Bill Bryson by way of Sir David Attenborough – is that of all the odd creatures in the world, humans are the oddest. That vision is aptly reflected the titles of Durrell’s first two Corfu books, "My Family and Other Animals," and "Birds, Beasts and Relatives." They were followed by an equally charming sequel, "Garden of the Gods," later published by David R. Godine as "Fauna and Family."

    Godine has done much to keep Durrell’s legacy alive in recent years by reissuing some of his books in handsome new editions. Along with "Fauna and Family," Godine has also reprinted "Fillets of Plaice," a smattering of his travel adventures, and the small publishing house is releasing "Beasts in My Belfry" soon.

    In Durrell’s books, the landscape looms brightly as an abiding character in the story. He’s a poet of place, as in this memorable passage about the Durrells’ home in Corfu:

    The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, had flower beds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake’s head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars, half-moons, triangles, and circles, all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild. Roses dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame red, moon white, glossy and unwrinkled....

    Durrell’s brother Lawrence, who figures prominently in his Corfu books, was a writer, too. Lawrence (1912-1990) was primarily a novelist, known best for a series of Egypt-based fictional works called "The Alexandria Quartet," but like his brother, he was an accomplished travel writer. Axios Press has a fine reissue of "Bitter Lemons," Lawrence Durrell’s beautifully rendered account of his three years in Cyprus in the 1950s, and many of his descriptions of Cyprian locales are keepers as well.

    Watch “The Durrells in Corfu,” a lavishly executed production in the Masterpiece tradition, but read Gerald and Lawrence Durrell’s books, too. They offer pleasures that promise to endure long after this public TV series is through.

    Michael Haag's The Durrells of Corfu is published in the spring.

    Thursday, 29 September 2016

    Postcards from Lawrence Durrell's Avignon

    'Onward,' writes Deborah on the back of this postcard as she begins to read The Avignon Quintet.

    Some while ago I had an email from a woman called Deborah in America.  She was in the middle of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and wanted - in fact needed - to talk about it with someone.  When she was finished I suggested she read his Avignon Quintet, though I hedged my suggestion saying she might find it rather loosely constructed, unevenly written, possibly completely awful (I was repeating various remarks I have heard about it), but that I thought there are at least two and a half very good novels within the five, including a powerful and brilliantly observed historical account of the German occupation of Provence during the Second World War.

    In the event and right from the start with the first volume, Monsieur, Deborah swept away all my qualifications about the Quintet which she read with a freshness and enthusiasm that reawakened my best feelings about the books. 

    For example I had this email about the first volume.

    'I enjoyed Monsieur, I certainly did not want to stop reading it.  My bookmark was covered with new words to look up too!  If I have anything to complain about it is my own fault - I was reading it a little more analytically than usual, having read the Alexandria Quartet. Certainly comparisons are inevitable.

    'I love Durrell as a writer, and this book is so beautifully written, line for line.  And I admire that Durrell was always trying to do something new with the novel form: I was captivated by the layering of the stories within the book...

    'The book is grim, and the clouds of death and mental illness make it, for me, a great read.  It is a book written by an older person. I am in a place to appreciate that.

    'I love the complexity of the religious aspect, and having been a zen Buddhist who studied the old koans with a teacher for more than a decade, I was moved by the search, the questioning, the being knocked-off-one's-pins aspect of Piers' religious search.  That rang true. 

    'I think Durrell was a wordsmith and poet, as ever.  There are some unforgettable moments, and it is haunting, atmospheric.  I do want, and yet don't want, to read more - if you know what I mean.'

    I very much enjoyed getting Deborah's reports, mostly by email, but sometimes very briefly on the backs of postcards.

    I like postcards, sending and receiving them, and encouraged Deborah to do the same.  And so a flow of Avignon postcards have passed back and forth between us, in some cases Deborah creating her own.  A selection follows with some of the remarks which Deborah scribbled on the reverse.

    'This card has a very different perspective than most Avignon cards. I am experimenting with the "write-over" technique.'

    I had told Deborah that it did not matter if the postcard was already written on; just write over it, using an interlinear, or at a right angle, or in a different colour.  Deborah wrote across this one at a right angle in fuschia; the original postcard was first sent in 1935.

    'More nightwalking in Livia, with Felix and Blanford both in turmoil together, ending up propped in oil cans in front of a brothel window in the dark.'

    'The open windows, the curtains blowing, the smell of lavender in the air.' 

    'I am just now exactly halfway through the Quintet.  Sam's death, Freud, Alexandria in the collage with Avignon.'

    'Having finished Constance, and in awe of that last chapter, I am carrying Sebastian which has begun with that intriguing gnostic-oriented conversation between the Prince and Affad. Hours of pleasure ahead. From my own experience it was interesting to see Constance enter the world of yoga in Sebastian.'

    'I am reading and enjoying Sebastian, thinking about Durrell.'

    'The sun is harsh but the shade is dark.  Scent of honeysuckle at dusk.  Plenty of olives.  Don't you wish you were here?'

    'This photo with its summerlight does not match the darkness of the Tu Duc chapter I have been re-reading in Constance.  Durrell really captures the cold and darkness of Nazi occupied Avignon - what a contrast to the warm golden days before the war.'

    'Here the calendar page turns and we start to feel summer is already behind us.  And soon I will turn the last page of Quinx with its confusion, dancing and startling revelations.'

    Deborah took her time over Quinx, as she told me in this email.

    'I succumbed, after overnight guests, to a nap, but woke after minutes, so I read Quinx, which has been sorely (and deliberately in some ways) neglected.  I completed the chapter where Sabine reunites (in more ways than one) and leads our characters to the fortune-telling.  What follows is a most engaging stream of dream as they head off to Avignon - almost like riding off to the underworld - I loved it.

    'I really don't want this series to end.'

    A few days later another email.

    'I meant to say before I came down with this cold (I have had no rest and the most fitful sleep) that I found I had very little to say at the end of Quinx.  I found it to be a very satisfying ending, and I am basking in all the bits and pieces which I enjoyed very much. 

    'The Constance volume is of course the climax of the whole quintet, but what comes before and after is quite curious and engrossing.  It will stay with me for a long time.

    'Blanford says "And here I was hoping not only to tell the truth but also to free the novel a bit from the shackles of causality....An impossible task you always tell me, but the higher the risk the greater the promise!"

    'I think Durrell succeeded.'

    Saturday, 17 September 2016

    The Durrells for Spring 2017

    The spring 2017 catalogue of Profile Books announces the publication of The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag.

    Monday, 5 September 2016

    Arabic Edition of Alexandria: City of Memory Published in Egypt

    The Arabic edition of Alexandria: City of Memory
    by Michael Haag has been published in Egypt this August by the Supreme Council for Culture along with the National Centre for Translation.

    Wednesday, 31 August 2016

    Upstairs Downstairs

    Fitzjohn's Avenue rising to Hampstead.
    I came upon this postcard recently and though it is well over a hundred years old I immediately recognised the scene.  Directly ahead is Fitzjohn's Avenue rising to Hampstead, one of the highest points in London.  The avenue was laid out in 1876 and lined with chestnut trees and handsome villas in a variety of often fanciful styles; already in 1883 it was described by Harpers Magazine as 'one of the noblest streets in the world'.  Its early inhabitants included Lloyds underwriters, shipowners, auctioneers, silk manufacturers, a wine merchant, a director of Hull Docks, an Arctic explorer, an Islamic scholar and several artists.

    The same scene today.
    I went to the spot and took this photograph to compare it with the postcard.

    The postcard shows a water trough in the foreground for horses about to make the climb. And to the left there is a fountain under a conical roof.  Today the trough is gone and the fountain serves as an occasional flower stall.

    A winter's day.
    This monochrome photograph, dating to about the same period as the postcard and taken on a winter's day when the trees were bare, shows the scene clearly.  To the left is an open plot, no house stands on it.  Today it is built upon by a Territorial Army centre.  Beyond the fountain is a house whose address is 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue.  You can see the same house through the trees on the face of the postcard.

    To Florrie Sambrook c/o Lady Salt.
    From this house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue my postcard was sent by Lucy to her friend Florrie on 3 September 1907.

    From Lucy at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue.
    Lucy's message reads:

    3 Fitzjjohns Avenue
    Hampstead NW

    Dear Florrie
    I am afraid you will think I have quite forgotten your tie pattern, but hope to send it the end of the week, been so very busy.
    Goodbye  Love to all.

    This message on the back of a postcard is almost all we know about Lucy.  She is in service at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue; in what little spare time she has she is working on a pattern borrowed from her friend Florrie who also is in service but far away in Staffordshire.  'Love to all' suggests that Lucy knows not only Florrie but others there.  It is tempting to think that they 'all' know each other from Staffordshire, that they all come from there, but as we shall see they probably first knew each other not in Staffordshire but in London.

    Isaac Lewis, diamond merchant and financier.
    The addresses in London and at Walton on the Hill tell us more, if not about Lucy and Florrie then about the people who employed them.  The house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue was built in 1876 in the Arts and Crafts style and first bought by Isaac Lewis, who was born in Lithuania, then part of Russia, and in 1870 went to South Africa where he made his living as a travelling merchant with his cousin Samuel Marks. Their fortunes flourished when they found themselves among the first to be at the Kimberley diamond field as it was being opened up; they sold provisions and equipment to the miners and soon ventured in diamonds themselves.  In 1873 he came to England where he married Sarah Ann Tickton, the daughter of a rabbi of Sheffield, and returned with her to South Africa where he and Marks built up a large financial and industrial enterprise.  In his later years he lived in London to oversee his company's affairs in Britain and on the Continent before returning to Cape Town where he died in 1927.  He is buried, however, at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, London.

    At some point before 1916 Lewis sold 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue to August Ries, a banker born in Wurtemberg and a British citizen. Ries was a partner of L Hirsch & Co, a firm that made its money from South African gold mines and British coal mines.  Ries and Lewis must have known one another through their business affairs: the London business addresses of Lewis and Ries were the same, Warnford Court, Throgmorton Street.

    But I do not know when Lewis sold 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue to Ries.  Was it before or after Lucy sent her postcard in 1907?  Whatever the date and whether her employer was Lewis or Ries, Lucy was working for an extremely wealthy man with business dealings in South Africa, England and on the Continent.

    c/o Lady Salt
    Lucy's friend Florrie was working for Lady Salt in Staffordshire.  Lady Salt's husband, who was knighted for his services to banking, died in 1904.  That is when she moved out of London to Walton on the Hill, to the house where she had lived as a girl.  So quite possibly Lucy and Florrie knew one another first in London, but when Lady Salt removed herself to Walton on the Hill she took her staff with her.  These would be the 'all' that Lucy sends her love to.

    Lady Salt at Walton on the Hill
    Lady Salt's mother was the daughter of a West India merchant who became Governor of the Bank of England.  Her mother's older brother, that is Lady Salt's uncle, was Henry Edward Manning, a high Anglican Church clergyman who famously converted to Catholicism and became Cardinal Manning.  Helen, which was Lady Salt's name, remembered the family visits her uncle would often make when she was growing up at Walton on the Hill.

    Cardinal Manning
    Like her friend Lucy in London, Florrie in Staffordshire was serving a family of bankers, though by the time Florrie went to Walton on the Hill, Cardinal Manning, son of a governor of the Bank of England, had long since gone to his maker.  Lady Salt lived at Walton on the Hill until 1920 when she returned to London; perhaps Florrie and Lucy enjoyed a reunion then and exchanged more sewing patterns.

    Then in 1921 August Ries sold 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue to Philip de Laszlo, the society painter who lived there and used it as his studio. De Laszlo was born into humble circumstances in Budapest but his ability as an artist got him a long way, including marrying Lucy Guinness of the banking branch of the Guinness family.

    Philip de Laszlo's self portrait; he married a banker's daughter.
    Among the people who had their portraits painted by de Laszlo at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue were Andrew Mellon, President Calvin Coolidge, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife Lady Edwina Mountbatten, Queen Marie of Romania, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George VI of the United Kingdom and his wife Queen Elizabeth when they were still the Duke and Duchess of York, and their daughter Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II. You can see a film of him painting a mannequin of Lady Duff-Gordon's fashion house in 1928.

    De Laszlo's portrait of the then Duchess of York, mother of Queen Elizabeth II.
    De Laszlo also painted a man I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the diplomat and great desert explorer and wonderful writer Ahmed Hassanein, author of The Lost Oases

    Ahmed Hassanein
    The house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue has recently been converted into flats.  And to give it a cachet it has been named De Laszlo House. 

    The home of Isaac Lewis, August Ries and Philip de Laszlo.

    A blue plaque identifies the house as that of Philip de Laszlo.

    A blue plaque honouring Philip de Laszlo at 3 Fitzjohn's Avneue.

    Lucy and Florrie are remembered by their postcard.

    The old fountain turned flower stall.  Beyond it is the Territorial Army centre and beyond that is the house where Lucy wrote her postcard to Florrie.