Wednesday, July 27, 2011


We had planned so much to do in London and Manchester - not the least of which was to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum's The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 and, nostalgically for me, in Manchester look at one the best collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings anywhere, paintings I'd not seen, outside of books, for many a long year. So much planned and commensurately such a disappointment in having to cancel - not on a whim, but out of necessity. A disappointment heralded by the PA's reaction on his first look at my MRI films. "Whoa!" he said, with awe in his voice, "I've never seen anything like this." It confirmed, I suppose, what we already knew, but had gone unspoken, about having to cancel the vacation - this after an epidural, the onset of "dropped foot" in both legs, and a return, despite the epidural, of the worst sciatic pain I'd ever had, followed by a fall flat on my back in the shower, and the fact that I was in a wheelchair. I thought "whoa!" was a fair reaction to what he saw. 

So, an unplanned break from blogging having ensued, as has surgery and physical therapy (ongoing) I'm now able to totter, with the use of a cane, to my desk and sit for a while, fogged a little from the medication, and wonder what I'm going to write about. I have read so much the last four weeks but somehow don't want to turn this post into a "what I read this summer" grade school essay but, nonetheless, when you're flat on your back for a couple of weeks there's not much else to do but read.

I mentioned a few weeks ago how I'd finally come round to e-books and was quite enthusiastic about them. I still am enthusiastic but, much as with p-books, e-books are a mixed bag in terms of design, typography and proof-reading or the lack thereof. Many e-books are poorly typeset, with total disregard for basic typographic principles – more "widows" and "orphans" than a Dickens' novel, captions cut adrift from the illustrations they describe, letter-spacing choppy at best. This might be excusable in the free e-books, on the basis that one is getting what one has paid for, but the same problems regularly arise in commercial e-books, too.

Paradoxically, at the same time as they appear to flout the basic good manners of typography, many e-books also seem locked into a "print" mindset, and fail to take advantage of the potential of the new online medium. Like the online shelter magazines I discussed here, they seem to designed by people whose training is in print, and not in web design. Both e-books and e-magazines are designed - though "design" in this context implies intent - to resemble their print counterparts. And that, to me, is the intrinsic flaw. Why, given the capabilities of digital linkages, am I still having to turn the digital page, and in the case of e-books why are the illustrations bundled together in sections as one would find with a print book? As I say, e-books and e-magazines, as I experience them, are designed by people who were trained in the limitations of print - limitations that do not, or should not, exist in e-design. The nearest I have come in my search for what I think an e-magazine should or could be is Flipboard.

So, what did I read this summer?

A terrific read, the top of my list, despite the fact that because of medication I found it hard to concentrate for long, is Rome by Robert Hughes - a book not yet published in the United States - a highly personal account of the city of Rome from its founding to its present-day cultural destitution. A quotation from the last chapter gives a good sampling of what you might expect from this book - a quotation, I think, that pretty well sums up the cultural meagerness of the present day, and not just in Italy.

"..... It has got worse since the sixties with the colossal, steamrollering, mind-obliterating power of TV - whose Italian forms are amongst the worst in the world. The cultural IQ of the Italian nation, if one can speak of such a thing, has dropped considerably and the culprit seems to be television, as it is in other countries. What is the point of fostering elites that few care about? It bestows no political advantage. In the wholly upfront culture of football, 'reality' shows and celebrity games, a culture of pure distraction, it is no longer embarrassing to admit that Donatello, like the temperature of the polar ice-cap or the insect population of the Amazon, is one of those things about which you, as a good molto tipico Italian and nice enough guy, do not personally give a rat's ass."

William Shawcross' Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, my first e-book, led me to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother at Clarence House, by John Cornforth, a book about the history of the house itself and the role of the Queen Mother as art collector; thence to Christopher Hussey's Clarence House published in 1949 to commemorate the then-newly-married Princess Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh setting up home together at Clarence House in rooms formal and sparsely, if comfortably, furnished, with:

"Many gifts made to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip at their wedding consisted in furniture of the second half of the eighteenth century. This was fortunate, for English cabinet-making and design reached their zenith during the reign of George the Third, in the hands of Robert Adam, Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and the consummate craftsmen who executed their designs. These designs, moreover, were inter-related by a continuous though changing trend of development. Consequently a definite stylistic unity is given by the furniture to the rooms of Clarence House. These, though built during the Regency, are essentially late Georgian in character, with the spacious simplicity that suits furniture produced during that epoch."

Christopher Hussey, the erstwhile editor of Country Life, wrote a beautiful and poetic description (some might call it purple prose) of the Sitting Room and it's worth quoting it full.

"The most attractive room in the house is undoubtedly Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room..... There are two lofty windows in the long wall and a wider one in the end opposite the entrance, the strong light from which is diffused my white muslin curtains. For the walls Her Royal Highness specified aquamarine, a delicate pale blue with a hint of green in it. This is carried up into the ceiling cove, which should, in general, be the same colour as the walls, and thereby emphasizes their height. The mouldings dividing the walls into compartments appear to be early twentieth century, but those of the chair-rail and skirting give evidence of being original. The original chimney-piece of white marble and ormulu has been moved to provide a second fireplace in the Drawing Room, the original chimney-piece it closely matches. Its place has been taken by one of carved pine, re-assembled from members found in store at Kensington Palace. Its entablature, crisply carved in high relief with festoons of flowers in the rococo taste, sets its date fairly easily in the time of George II who occupied Kensington for most of his reign (1727-1760). The window curtains, of patterned damask, match the walls. The magnificent modern Chinese carpet of self-coloured wool, textured with an over-all pattern of conventional flowers in relief, is considerably lighter in tone and contributes to the effect of diffused lightness which is perhaps the outstanding impression given by the room.

"The impression might be imaginatively described as catching the sensation of an early morning in September, when the sky is of a pale cloudless blue, but when the sun is still veiled by a thin haze and the lawn is silvered with dew. At that hour, in the freshness of the dawn, when the cool light vibrates in refraction from an infinity of tiny prisms on gossamers and flower-petals, the scene sings with soft, clear, colour. But in the margins, among the stems of trees that still cast long shadows over the lawn, the light is stained to deeper tones by the green canopies above, except where through a chink some ray falls on a still pool, a dew-dropped twig, or golden cache of fallen leaves.

"The components of this fanciful picture have close analogies in the colours assembled in the Princess's room. The phloxes and hollyhocks of a late summer garden are always reminiscent of chintz, a covering material of which it is said she is fond. The pattern chosen here for sofa and easy chairs incorporates pink and white hollyhocks against the same misty blue as the walls. The cut-glass chandelier, of late eighteenth-century design, has a skeleton of old gilded bronze from which hang the festoons and cascades of drops catching and concentrating the sunlight. The oval Chippendale mirror above the fireplace, with rococo carved and gilt wood frame, is the craftsman's version of the sylvan pool, while in each wall-light of gilded and carved wood he has actually portrayed a pair of doves, whose song we might add to the scenic analogy."

At the bottom of my list, an e-book, The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean - and this is not a criticism of the author's writing style or the content of the book - was maddening in its lack of proof-reading, its seemingly random underlining of certain sentences and paragraphs, and its occasional instruction to "see color illustration" of which I could fine none. I had the distinct impression that there had been a rush to e-publish, the detriment of quality being beside the point. It is this book that has caused my wariness of buying e-books. Nonetheless, the book is a good and interesting read - the author's premise being that there was a particular moment in 18th century Paris when comfort, rather than grandeur, became the priority and thereby transformed architecture and interiors up to the present day - but what began to dominate the author's account of that transformation was my reaction to the careless typesetting mentioned above.

Somewhere between the two extremes, and in no particular order, are: State of Wonder, by Anne Patchett - a beautifully written story of a "research scientist with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company, sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor ..." not, in my opinion, the spellbinder the book cover promised and I labored at it for quite a while. I think I should read it again for I admit I did not give it my best, falling asleep as frequently as I did when reading it; Doctored Evidence, the first of a number of Donna Leon's books I've enjoyed over the past weeks - marvelous evocations of Venice and the Italian political scene as experienced by her humane Commissario Guido Brunetti; The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett - I knew by the end of the first chapter this book was not for me but because it was a gift I persevered, again between bouts of nodding off, but neither the tale nor its characters enthralled me; Edward VII, Christopher Hibbert's biography (e-book) of Queen Victoria's eldest son, who despite his appalling childhood and lack of training in the job of monarchy, became a well-respected king, a loving father and grandfather; The Aspern Papers by Henry James, which I have yet to finish (and to be honest, doubt if I ever shall); Jane Austen's Persuasion (free from iBooks) which I assume needs no further description, and, finally, the newly-published and excellent Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich - a very good read and an acute history of a line of rulers, spiritual and temporal, that began with St Peter and ends, thus far, with Benedict XVI. Actually an e-book which has got me through many a long dark hour when I awoke in the middle of the night and didn't want to wake the Celt by switching on the bedside light. I'm enjoying John Julius Norwich's book so much, obtusely perhaps, am going to buy the print version. And, I'll read it again from beginning to end.

So... what are you reading?

Photographs of Princess Elizabeth's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room from Clarence House, Christopher Hussey, Country Life Limited, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1949. No photographer's name given in the book.

Photographs of the Queen Mother's Sitting Room and her Drawing Room by Mark Fiennes, from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Clarence House, John Cornforth, Michael Joseph London in association with The Royal Collection, London 1996.


  1. Blue, I am glad to know you are on the mend, as I have been concerned. I hope to soon start THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, the story of architect/fair planner Daniel Burnham and handsome doctor/landlord/sadistic serial killer Henry H. Holmes during the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

  2. We've been a bit worried but "whoa" at least you are tottering now. At our house we're praying that you progress though the "toddle, coggle, totter, dodder, paddle, and waddle" stages as quickly as possible.

    My brother got a Kindle for Christmas. They fell in love eloped I think.

    Nobody whines about cultural decline like Robert Hughes. I'm reading Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" right now. She hits just as hard as Mr. Hughes but didn't do TV.

  3. Hello:
    We are so very sorry to read here that things have, over the last few weeks, rather gone from bad to worse. We very much hope that now there is some light to be seen at the end of the tunnel.

    Also, you must have been very disappointed to have to cancel your holiday. Let us hope that it can take place at some future date.

    A right Royal read here! Have you read the Roy Strong diaries which include many intriguing insights into the late Queen Mother's life [as well as much else]?

  4. columnist has left a new comment on your post "Whoa!":

    Goodness, I am sorry your sciatica has given you so much grief, but I hope that you are on the mend.

    The contrast between the way the Duke & Duchess of Edinburgh and the way Queen Elizabeth decorated Clarence House is remarkable. Of course, we may not be comparing like with like, (the rooms). But I think the dowager queen certainly had much better taste than her daughter and son in law. And her grandson seems to have inherited that, leaving the "state" rooms much as they were during her time, with a bit of sprucing up by Robert Kime.

    Hope you continue to mend well.

  5. So sorry to hear that you have been in such pain...

    My recommedation is The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. Not a thriller but a compelling biography of an aristo Jewish family. The 'rosebud', which ties it all together, is a collection of Netsuke.

    Please read it and let us know what you think?


  6. The Devoted Classicist, thank you. I am definitely on the mend even if a little impatient at what I see as the slowness of it. I read The Devil in the White City when first in paperback and thoroughly enjoyed it, in a horrified way. I'm tempted by the author's latest but will wait until the other pile of books on my bedside table are read.

  7. Terry, thank you. Good to hear from you and thank you for your prayers!

    I've through all the "toddle, coggle, totter, dodder, paddle, and waddle" stages and this morning seem to be reliving them all again - just one of those days!

    I shall get Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" - it should be right up my alley, as it were.

  8. Jane and Lance Hattatt, thank you very much. I have not read the Roy Strong diaries but I shall order them as quickly as I can. A recommendation I cannot resist. Shawcross's biography of the Queen Mother is a worthwhile read - if you have not read it, that is.

  9. Columnist, thank you. I pressed "delete" instead of "publish" (not wearing reading glasses) but was able to cut and paste your comment into one of my own - just in case you look and don't see your name.

    I think the rooms are the same but in the case of the sitting room during the time of the Queen Mother the walls were hung with damask thus hiding the moldings above the dado rail. I agree, the contrast between the two styles of decoration is remarkable and in the case of the Princess's there is oddly enough, despite the richness a certain "austerity in a time of rationing" feel. The Queen Mother's rooms did not, in contrast with her daughter's, have the feel of a stage set.

    Prince Charles had the wisdom to call in Robert Kime and judging by what I saw in WoI it was a job well done. There were, I think, a lot of repairs to be done before Kime was able to do his work.

  10. Anonymous, thank you.

    The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal will top the pile of books on my bedside table as soon as I can get my hands on it. Thank you for the recommendation!

  11. Only "improbable" note in a very welcome update is the doubt of finishing The Aspern Papers. You certainly will, not that you can be intimidated by an unfinished chore, not because it's a moral "thriller," not because it's subtle and not because it's shrewd and not because it's James but because it's about privity and invasion, vulnerability and deception - in short. on making a character and putting him on a page to ease oneself. No, you'll read it, and you'll love it.

    As to the late, good King, I admire Hibbert on the Mob (London Riots, 1780), so I'm bound to assume an elevation of his gifts, am I not, in approaching this genuinely relevant of sovereigns? My 'life' of E vii RI
    is Giles St Aubyn's, which I prize for his reminiscence via the wedding, of Princess Alexandra's most delicious trait: "The Bride was ten minutes late but was seldom ever again to be so punctual." I hope Hibbert captured their qualities so well; I shall believe you if you say so.

    "Tottering" is enviable, and you've given us enough grounds for that. Get better, as we used to say, and come out and play.

    Great to see you up. I check every day.

  12. Gobsmacked I am. I thought for sure you and Blue Eyes were high tailing across London...sorely to hear your tale of woe. Aging is a bitch and is not for sissies, no?

    How many people out there even know what widows and orphans are in typeset pages? I have spanned the time line from hot press to computers. I am a dinosaur! I do think your comments about being hamstrung by the past and not adapting to the future is both hysterical, perceptive and wise.

    Do hope you take the time to mend and do all of that wretched physical therapy. Good lord, that stuff is a pain in the ass. When I broke my thumb and wrist, I knew I was on the mend when I wanted to sock that therapist in the face! Big hugs that don't hurt.

    As for reading: I reread Wharton's House of Mirth, enjoyed Colm Toibin's The Empty Family, am starting Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns and dabble in Thierry Coudert's Cafe Society. Have I mentioned I have become addicted to reading all the newspapers I can gobble up online?

  13. Laurent, thank you. I am sorry for the late reply. You're right, I'm likely to finish reading The Aspern Papers but not quite yet. Hibbert served the king and queen very well and thank you for reminding me about Giles St Aubyn - a name I'd long forgotten. The university library has two of his books but not the one about Edward VII which I am looking forward to buying.

  14. Home before dark, thank you and my apologies for a late reply. I'm not yet at the stage where I want to sock my physical therapist but you've given me signs to watch out for. You're right about aging not being for sissies - having just come back from my twice-daily walk around the motor court and viisitor parking (12 minutes) totally knackered and ready for a lay down. Still, a 12 minute walk is right now, for me, up there with a walk on the moon.

    I remember in college learning to hand set type and then shortly after seeing those same cases for sale as decorative shelving for knick-knacks! Upper case and lower case - everyone uses the phraseology but so few know the derivation.

    Thank you for the book suggestions. The pile grows!

    For the times, they are a-changing ...

  15. Dearest Blueish,

    Been thinking of you and the Celt enjoying your summer vacation in the UK. What a suprise to hear you have not been well. So sorry! Nothing worse than being sick and aching and on top of that having to cancel a vacation.

    The Hare with Amber Eyes was excellent, also remember In the Garden of Beasts by the same author of Devil in the White City. I also enjoyed The Greater Journey by David McCullogh about Americans in Paris in mid 19th century.

    Please keep cool and let me know what I can do to cheer you up. Muah!

  16. Lindaraxa, thank you. Good to hear from you! I'll be up and about soon and we'll get together.

  17. oh Blue-whether sitting in a chair or strolling a gallery, your insights are always spot on. Venture to say You could have "faked" it and shared your wealth of knowledge via chair to us. I hate that you have been way under. We will commiserate in the "Fall." I have your what have you been reading in a post-and have had several or our esteemed bloggers share their picks in Summer Reading ii at la.This week Emile is featured. pgt

  18. It must be gutting to have had to cancel such a holiday. I would be left speechless. But glad to see that you not, and have put a brave face on it all.

    Your comments about the emag format are really interesting, and I absolutely have to concur. The leap doesn't seem to have been made yet in terms of how they can format in their own right. They drive me nuts with their content layouts - but I guess these are early days and things will rapidly change.

    And as for your summer of readings, man am I jealous of that. My bedside table consists of no less than 3 books I am attempting to read. But a couple of pages each evening is all I seem to manage, tragically! Then the next night, I have to re-read those same pages, because I was too tired to take it in properly!

    Finally, glad to know that you have managed to get up in a chair, and hopefully further progress will now be swift. If a strong mind can will the body to be strong too, you will have no trouble at all.

  19. Gaye, thank you. Apologies for the late reply - I'm going stir crazy, thus am cranky. I thought it best to wait until I could be civil again. I read Emile's list of books - precisely what I would have expected (not that I foresaw what he would say) and some good guidance for additions to the library.

  20. Blue Fruit, thank you. Oh, boy, do I know that situation where you know you read but as to what ...

    To cancel the vacation was a wrench but as needs must. The good thing is, I heard yesterday I can go to New York in two weeks time. Fingers crossed!