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The Shadowcutter

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My love hate relationship with the Internet

Sometimes it feels to me that the Internet is like a stray animal who has come to live in my house. Sometimes it is the most charming, useful, companion and I cannot imagine how I ever managed without it. At other times I feel that it is sucking my will to live and destroying everything that I hold dear. What is a girl to do?


My current favourite time waster: this is akin to decorating your school folder with pictures when you were about 15. It is a lovely place to collect photographs of everything you like and put them into groups of your choice. You can make comments about the picture you post but really it doesn’t matter. This renders the Pinterest world delightfully uncontroversial. It is all about the look of the thing, be it a crazy cake pop decorating idea or a detail of a Vermeer. You simply gaze with pleasure on the feast of imagery, and enjoy it for what it is. People follow you and you follow others but you don’t even need to be that engaged. It is really the most laid back social network I have come across. It is not a competition to get followers, unlike its big brother, Twitter…

That’s the good news about Pinterest. The bad news is that it is seductive, and you can spend hours on it, collecting and pasting your images. But is that such a bad thing? Sometimes it is a good thing just to be visual and use a different part of your brain.


Ah, Twitter. What a clever idea and at the same time what a total dystopian nightmare!

Good things about Twitter

Twitter is like having a group of colleagues whom you chat with at the office. You don’t know them well, but you know enough about them to get along. There is lots of gossip in this office and people come and go a lot.  Jokes and sympathy abound. If you are miserable you can let rip and people will comfort you. You can use it to set yourself goals. “I am going to write now” you can announce loftily. “I will be back when I have finished this chapter.” A public statement of intent is a great motivator and Twitter can be useful for this. In fact it has been formalised into the #amwriting hashtag.

You can have jolly sociable fun as well as find useful information. Royal weddings and Olympic opening ceremonies have never been so much fun as when you watch along with your crowd. Twitter is adorable when it decides to be.

The evil that is Twitter

Twitter allows people to be cantankerous, rude, mean spirited and just plain nasty in a way that they would never be in real life. Politics in Twitter is full of sweeping generalisations because there is no sensible space for debate. It is all sound-biting and grand-standing.  Rumours of all sorts, utterly unfounded in facts, swirl around like noxious clouds of gas, and people, thinking they are hidden, indulge their spleen in horrible fashion. Sometimes you can look at your Twitter feed and see nothing but misery and hate. On those days I creep away and try to forget what I have seen.


I still do not understand Facebook. I have tried it but failed on several occasions. It is too busy and messy. It always reminds me of an occasion in my childhood when I swam in the heavily-polluted Mediterranean, somewhere off Italy –  an experience so disgusting I have never forgotten it. It was like swimming in tepid minestrone.

Online Banking

I find it oddly satisfying moving money around in the small hours. In the old days you could not do that outside of banking hours or have ready access to your balance. I think it  is a good thing (as Martha Stewart would say). It makes you feel you have more control of your money.

Internet shopping

Utopian. Especially from  Waitrose. I think it greatly reduces my impulse buying but it can increase the possibility of time-eating window-shopping, gazing at expensive clothes I can never dream of buying but which I now know exist.

Which brings us neatly into that really dangerous thing: online house porn. Never before have we had the chance to drool so extensively over dream houses. A wonderful mixture of hopeless longing and very enjoyable horror at other people’s poor taste in furnishings. “I would buy this million pound house if I could, but that kitchen would have to go. Appalling.”

Online newspapers

We have not bought a newspaper for years in this house. No dirty fingers and no trips to the recycling bins. Yet newspapers are avidly consumed for free, with the added frisson of the comments on the articles. Obviously you have to have a strong stomach for these, and intellectually and morally it is quite reprehensible, but it can be so entertaining sometimes to watch the steam rise and bile spurt after some columnist has written a particularly provocative piece (for provocative read daft). I think the Germans need to coin a word for this: “the shameful pleasure of reading the Daily Mail to get annoyed by it.”


Men in wigs and dresses to die for.

I have a bit of a crush on Peter Lely. In fact I’m a bit confused about it.

Sir Peter Lely, by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1660 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Here is the gentleman of whom I speak – his self portrait of 1660, from the National Portrait Gallery. Not exactly my type. However I have now made his acquaintance in person.

Well, not really. An actor or an historian (I don’t know which) is doing a impersonation of this man at Hampton Court Palace and doing a devilish cunning job. My head is quite turned, I can tell you.

Now this impersonation is in support of the new exhibition at Hampton Court of voluptuous portraiture of the Restoration period (from about 1660 to 1680) which I highly recommend: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Damned (c Private Collection)

It is brilliantly curated, with a bevy of sumptuous portraits hung in Queen Mary’s State Aparments, complete with opulent swags of silk and at one point a suggestively rumpled bed.  The pictures are hung at eye level so you can engage with the personalities of the era and also luxuriate in the beautiful colours, textures and general aura of tasteful eroticism. Even the pictures that pertain to virtuous beauty reek of sex. It’s a wonderful show – highly theatrical.

As we were wallowing in all this, a lady dressed in a period perfect shot taffetta gown appeared and  informed us that she would be undressing at 12 o’clock.  Now, I knew that there are costumed interpreters at Hampton Court and,  to tell you the truth, I usually give historical interpreters a very wide berth. However I had seen a snippet of one of those “behind the scenes” documentaries at Hampton Court and seen the costume department at work. It was obviously a very scholarly enterprise – and in fact just looking at this Restoration Beauty made it obvious that this was going to be very well done. So I put my silly prejudice aside and decided to go and see for myself.

What I didn’t realise was just how well done. I was entranced. It was a curious mixture of historical interpretation, improvised theatre and simple make believe.  The lady turned out to be Lady Castlemaine herself and Peter Lely had brought some undress gowns from his studio so that he could paint another sexy portrait of her and keep the King’s interest.  It was 1667 and neither of them would be strayed from that moment in time.  Before Lady Castelmaine  arrived  I had a long conversation with Mr Lely who was inclined to charming gossip.  He complained about the traffic in the Strand where the new maypole was and told me how many children Lady C. had had with the King. He had perfected a style of speech that was both contemporary, funny and slangy but had the flavour of the period to it, so that it was very easy to suspend my disbelief.  When small children interrupted with rather annoying questions he was patient but politely authoritarian with them, and seemed entirely a man of the seventeenth century. He never stepped out of character for a moment.  He was extremely interesting on the subject of his painting:  how he uses badger’s hair brushes to make the women’s skin beautifully smooth and how he employs a drapery painter for the satin and silk. I wish now I had asked him how much he paid the drapery painter and his other assistants.

As to the disrobing of Lady Castelmaine – this was an excuse for a sort of flirtation between them while we women became attendants on Lady C. I got the job of unlacing the back of her bodice and asked her to help me find a husband for my daughter, though I found myself wondering if it was really doing my reputation any good to be in the camp of the King’s mistress, who might not be his mistress for much longer.  This was how convincing it was – it was impossible not to get swept up into the story.  We were very fortunate that there were not many of us there in the room, and for added atmosphere we could hear someone playing the organ in the Chapel Royal a few doors away, while beyond the great windows, the spectacular formal gardens were shrouded in light English drizzle.

I would dearly have loved to give them both a round of applause when we were done but they never broke character and it would have spoiled the rather magical atmosphere if they had. But whoever they are in the twentieth century, I offer them an appreciative flourish of my hand and thank them heartily.


Mourning becomes her

This is another painting from the Birmingham Museum Collection which riveted me during my teen years. It’s called Boer War and it’s by John Byam Shaw. Naturally as a melencholic adolescent I loved it for the rather stagy, sensual, wallow in death atmosphere. I could very much identify with the feelings of the young widow, forced to wear black. I had also just read “Gone with the Wind” where Scarlett revolts at the business of High Victorian Mourning.

But thinking about this now, this forced wearing of black seems quite a good idea, not some dreadful cultural imposition. We live these days in a culture where being depressed is common yet is not at all permitted. We are all supposed to be happy all the time.  The Victorians were not so silly. They fully acknowledged the fact that death would make you miserable and they formulated elaborate dress codes which permitted the wearer to signal publicly the state of their feelings.  Instead of having to pretend nothing was wrong, you could point out to others, from your hat to your shoes, and even with the black ribbons threaded through your underthings, that you were sad and would be for some time to come.  This seems to me to be honest in a way that we are not these days.

Mourning dress ensemble

Mourning ensemble in the V & A.

Dress fabric and paper

Dress fabric and wrapper from Peter Robinson’s mourning warehouse, also in the V & A.

Worth noting too that a  dress length in 1892 was 7 yards long!


Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback