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John McCartney, Amazon Customer (Norfolk)

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Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud
by Martin Gayford
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A quiet masterpiece, 10 Mar. 2011
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One of my friends - an Art Historian - thinks Freud is an old phoney and that he's done nothing of interest for thirty years. If you're of her persuasion you may not enjoy this book. But then she thinks Tracey Emin is an "interesting" Artist, so you can judge for yourself what her opinion on Freud is worth. Personally I loved this book. I try to paint portraits myself - my first effort was 45 years ago, of a girl I was trying desperately to impress - and I know how a tiny speck of paint (in the wrong or the right place) can make or mar a portrait, so the time Freud takes to complete Martin Gayford's likeness is not as surprising to me as it apparently was to the sitter. But the sheer number of sittings over such a stretch of time allows a detailed account of Freud's working methods, and of his opinions and his life - in anecdotes.

What I find most interesting is the way in which Freud has moved from being a member of some sort of Brtish Avant-Garde in the fifties (friendship with Francis Bacon and so on) to being an almost traditional painter who is grappling with the formal problems of putting paint on canvas in a way which would have been quite familiar to Sickert or Manet or even Turner.

The book as an object is very pleasing. The dust-jacket is attractive with a small reproducton of the finished portrait on the front, the book itself beautifully produced with illustrations in the appropriate place within the text. It feels as if it was laid out by someone who really cared. At the (Amazon) price it's amazing.


The Tallis Scholars sing Thomas Tallis / Spem In Alium
The Tallis Scholars sing Thomas Tallis / Spem In Alium
Price: £12.31

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite the best, 4 Mar. 2011
The standout on any compilaton of Tallis choral music is "Spem In Alium", and listening to this performance some 26 years after it was recorded is instructive. On my Hi-Fi there are moments when this is almost painful to listen to, such are the effects of the distinctive acoustic of Merton College Chapel and/or the recording technique. When the soprano voices come in, there seems to be a resonance which over-emphasises their range and creates a ringing overtone. At first I thought that this was something to do with my Hi-Fi, and to be fair, not everyone notices it (my Wife thinks the recording is perfect). But I recently bought both the Magnificat recording and that by The Sixteen in order to compare, and they don't have the same problem.

Now this is a notoriously difficult piece to record, and the problem of conveying the feeling of a performance in a particular place was undoubtedly more dificult a quarter century ago. But it could be done; witness the sound on the second disc of this issue, recorded in Salle Parish Church in Norfolk. There are no unwanted resonances, the acoustic is spacious and open, the sound cooler and more analytical. So I conclude that Merton College Chapel plays too large a part in the sound of the first disc, while Salle Church is a model of discretion. Alternatively the recording engineer may have kept his mikes just too far from the singers; some older recordings made with a simple crossed pair had problems like this.

This is still a wonderful compilation, but time has passed and it's no longer the automatic choice if you want a Spem In Alium (and it is a miraculous piece of writing for voice - perhaps the most accomplished choral piece ever). I would rate the competing "Spems" as follows: in first place that by the group Magnificat; in second the recording by The Sixteen (not all Tallis, other period composers feature); in third place this version by The Tallis Scholars from the mid 1980s. If you don't fancy any of these there are another twenty or so more or less available.

But this compilation is more than just the "Spem" and, particularly for the second disc, it's still well worth having.


Minnow on the Say
Minnow on the Say
by Philippa Pearce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Book, 4 Mar. 2011
This review is from: Minnow on the Say (Paperback)
Whenever I'm feeling under the weather, perhaps with a cold, and I'm having extra time under the duvet, I tend to re-read books I'm familiar with - rather like the literary equivalent of whisky, honey and lemon - and particularly children's books. I first read this as a child a few years after it came out and have read it again on several occasions, the last a couple of months ago. It's a wonderful story, and it's not about rich kids or privileged kids like (at different ends of the spectrum) Arthur Ransome's or Enid Blyton's protagonists. The boat these boys use is an old canoe they have found, and they have to overcome real practical difficulties - and the facts of life in post-war England. In that way this book is a historical document, and children may need some of it explaining. No cars, no mobile phones, no television or computers, and so on. Anyway, suffice it to say I rose from my bed of sickness refreshed after reading it. Give it a go. You won't regret it.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 31, 2011 12:53 PM GMT


The Gingerbread Woman
The Gingerbread Woman
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sad and hopeful, 3 Mar. 2011
This review is from: The Gingerbread Woman (Paperback)
I've had Jennifer Johnston's early novels on my shelves for years - since they were first published in the early 1970s in fact - but it was this book which set me re-reading those stories, and buying some more recent ones. The plot of The Gingerbread Woman is simple: two people with tragic back-stories meet by chance and, without realising it, set each other on the road to at least partial recovery. The treacheries that cause their separate unhappiness are quite different, but the processes of adjustment which the protagonists have to go through are touchingly similar. The moral is that time is a great - but not complete - healer. A lovely book.


The Illusionist
The Illusionist
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not quite, 2 Mar. 2011
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This review is from: The Illusionist (Paperback)
I love most of Jennifer Johnston's novels, but this doesn't quite work. The Illusionist of the title is the ex-husband of the protagonist, but he's sketched so loosely that he is simply not believable. The rest of the book works well enough. The protagonist is an Irishwoman who is finally driven to leave the marital home in Suffolk - and her young daughter - by the coldness and cruelty of her husband, but he is so peculiar and his doings so opaque that he becomes a cipher whose mood is indicated by the colour of his eyes. Apart from that we are told almost nothing about him. How the heroine stands him for long enough to conceive and rear his child is not explained, nor are the miraculous illusions he performs, nor are some of the minor characters who are equally cardboard. Perhaps it's all Ms Johnston's joke on her readership?


The Gates
The Gates
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Small Masterpiece, 5 Feb. 2011
This review is from: The Gates (Paperback)
Rural Ireland, mid 20th Century, English family in the decaying "big house", colourful disadvantaged Irish, generational gaps among the English, love, and betrayal. From these fairly stock ingredients Jennifer Johnston weaves her usual magic. All her books that I have read are excellent. At the end you have empathy for all her characters - which is surely a sign of a great writer.


The Old Jest (filmed as "The Dawning")
The Old Jest (filmed as "The Dawning")
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Youth in a turbulent time, 4 Feb. 2011
This book deals with loss (as do most of Jennifer Johnston's) and the cynicism built into society. But if that sounds grim please don't be put off. It's a beautifully written account of youth and age in a society in transition (Ireland, early 1920s) and conjures wonderful pictures of a particular time and place. For me it lies somewhere on an arc which begins with Somerville and Ross, runs through William Trevor, and ends with Molly Keane. And there's not much higher praise than that.


The Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent - as usual with this Author, 2 Feb. 2011
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This review is from: The Christmas Tree (Paperback)
Strangely, as this is about a woman dying, this is a most life-affirming book. If you have read and enjoyed other Jennifer Johnstons (and I've loved her writing for forty years) you will enjoy this. If you're not familiar with her work, this is as good a place to start as any. Deceptively slight, this is a novel which punches well above its weight.


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
by Edmund de Waal
Edition: Hardcover

462 of 506 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A slight myopia, 2 Feb. 2011
I really wanted to like this book and, as far as literary craftsmanship is concerned, I do. It is beautifully written. But I can't help feeling that there is something important missing. We read about the fabulous wealth (and it was really fabulous) of the Author's forebears (the Ephrussis) going back five generations. These were men - and a few women - who commissioned works of Art from such as Renoir and Manet; who lived in huge palaces in the centre of Paris or Vienna; who owned huge estates in the Czech countryside and homes in many different cities; and who assembled their massive wealth, not through invention or production, but through banking and brokerage in foodstuffs. In living as the Author describes none of them, I am certain, meant any harm to anyone. They saw themselves, surely, as model employers, as philanthropists. They floated above normal Viennese (and Parisian) society; they were hardly affected by the First World War; the slump and depression of the early 1930s didn't affect their standard of living much; only the Nazis were able to bring down their world of privilege after the Austrian Anschluss of late 1937. And, unforgiveably, this happened because they were Jewish, as it happened to so many at the time. But the consequences for this particular very rich family were not as serious as for many of their fellow Jews, since they were able to buy their exits from Nazi Austria, albeit at the expense of almost their entire fortune, and with a huge amount of very stressful anxiety (which circumstance, the Author indicates, sadly killed his Great Grandmother). But those members of the Family who ended up in England for the duration of the Second World War lived in more comfort than many of the English, in a villa in Tunbridge Wells. Distant connections and some friends had their lives ended, tragically, in Nazi death camps, but these cultivated, educated, privileged people survived, although in very reduced circumstances.

The account of events immediately after Anschluss are very interesting. At first the local Austrian Brownshirts trashed the Ephrussi Palace in what seems, from the descriptions in the book, as much like undirected class resentment as political violence and sequestration. Only when the Germans arrived did the systematic theft of the family's treasures take place. The poor (or poorer) people of Vienna wrought a sort of violent anti-capitalist vengeance before the serious work of the German SS commenced. All this was and is deplorable, of course. But, rather like the Bankers in our present society, I wonder if the Author's forebears had any idea of the resentment that they had stoked up against themselves with their fabulous and unreal standard of living.

So I read this book with great interest and enjoyed it for the most part. But from fairly early on I had an unworthy feeling that "they had it coming". Not the anti-Jewish persecutions - which, it surely goes without saying, were utterly barbaric and inexcusable - but a reckoning with and by the poor and the dispossessed, even if their poverty and dispossession was only relative. (I sincerely hope that no-one reads this as any sort of apology for or justification of, the atrocities of the Nazis' vile regime; I have simply tried to be scrupulous in my explanation of the uneasiness I felt at the story told in this book.)

And I was left with an interesting question. Just how civilised are (were) the very rich? Of course, they have all the hallmarks of civilisation - appreciation of high Art and Culture, a code of behaviour which appears to be the epitome of politeness, often a great philanthropy, a facility with languages, a wide reading, cleanliness, reliability, and (that elusive quality) character. But - you have to accept - the very rich are very rich because they are able to make a profit from the labour and from the needs of their fellow men. At what point on the sliding scale does "a fair profit" become rank exploitation?

It is always fruitless to say "this would have been a better book if . . ." but a little more empathy from the Author for the poor and the dispossessed who formed the foundations of the society in which the Ephrussis flourished so remarkably would have been welcome.
Comment Comments (53) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 6, 2015 6:54 PM BST


Urban Desire
Urban Desire
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great urban rock album from Genya (aka Goldie), 18 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Urban Desire (MP3 Download)
If you're as ancient as me you may remember a 1965 hit single called "Can't You Hear My Heart Beat" by Goldie and the Gingerbreads. Goldie was Goldie Zelkowitz who later changed her name to Genya Ravan (as you do) and joined the amazing funk-jazz group "Ten Wheel Drive" as vocalist.

"Urban Desire" is her best solo album after she split from that group. It's the epitome of seventies urban funk/punk. Even Lou Reed guests on one track. If you like Springsteen or Little Steven, or almost any of the "Jersey Sound" artists, then I'm pretty sure you'll love this.


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