Villas

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I’d gone to Barcelona expecting to see but not particularly admire Gaudí (all the mosaics! why the bulging lines?), but of course I was blown away.

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I’m still not sure I can keep up with the reverential tone of the audio guides at La Predrera and Casa Battlo and their sheer excitement about spines of mystic creatures, but I do like the imagination mixed with practicality in these spaces.

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A tiled courtyard where the colour of the tiles graduated from cream to dark blue to respond to the sunlight and window sizes change floor by floor to filter out the fierce summer light.

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A ventilation system copied from the gills of fish, or deliberations of different zones by using different flooring.

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Even the roofs and terraces were calming rather than creepy when you’re in them, and the facade of Casa Battlo is really mesmerising – even if not every visitor is that interested in them!

All photos November 2018.

From yellow packet adorned with an elephant

I began to play a game with myself…Picturing myself in a dacha surrounded by prickly gooseberry bushes, I’d mentally preserve and pickle the tastes and smells of my Soviet socialist past in an imaginary three-litre jar.

In went the Order of Lenin Red October chocolate bars with a mirthful kid on the wrapper. In went the scarlet-wrapped Bolshevik Factory Jubilee Biscuits, the one’s that dissolved so poignantly when dipped in tea from a yellow packet adorned with an elephant.

Anna von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cookery is a fascinating and increasingly melancholy look at the development of Soviet Russia through Anna’s family history and her and her mother’s food memories. Starting with a Czarist feast of blinis “as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter” (Chekhov) and running up till the vodka rebellions of Gorbachev’s final years and splintering of the USSR its a total page turner.

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I’d no idea that Stalin – in a brief moment of generosity – sent his food minister to 1930s America, with the result that the socialist dream in late 30s Moscow was for every child to have a hamburger, ketchup and Pepsi, and that Khrushchev’s obsession with corn was also a legacy of Prairie dreams. Nor that the Russian emigrees to 20s Paris created a new kind of French cuisine. This book came via a recommendation on The Captive Reader blog, so go and check that out for more goodies too.

A modern Mrs Miniver

The Mrs Miniver columns – a series of gentle musings on a new notebook or whether to buy a bunch of chrysanthemums – were hugely popular in the late 1930s, even though, as the author’s granddaughter has now detailed they were also a definite wish fulfilment exercise for the writer that also camouflaged her far more complicated, not quite as glamorous, life.

Reading a recent article, the house tone at Vogue doesn’t seem to have changed much since then; there’s still a local celebrity to be “thrilled” about, a little dialogue about all the visitors and their dogs who are renovating a house, and a dependable, cheerful husband who is straight man to all the endless whimsy:

I opened a box sash window above the front door and said good morning. It’s a habit I have developed since living here, which makes me think of people behind battlements with vats of oil…

My husband Andrew came down the stairs to open the knock. “Please stop popping out at people from that window. It’s eccentric, bordering on impolite.

Pieces like this are a guilty pleasure to read, because it’s so twee and safe it’s as soothing as a bowl of mush, but I can also rather unfairly have a good time rolling my eyes at the Marie Antoinette smugness of it. Or how about:

there’s a mustard-hot rumour that Ptolemy Dean, the architect in residence at Westminster Abbey, will be in charge of the renovation. Andrew and I discover that we were just as thrilled by this as everyone else. I joined the residents association.”

In fairness, it’s very hard to write columns based on your life (Nora Ephron in Heartburn talks about feeling like she’s living with a cannibal with her second husband who is always making their life into 850 words, syndicated.) and also to get the right balance and style so that your readers feel that nothing’s changed since 1933 and a silk dress will sort all ills, but I can’t really read too much before wanting to scream at the smugness of it all.

Much better stick with The Real Mrs Miniver and read all about the real character’s scandalous second life in wartime America.

Achille Castiglione

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An Italian designer who would have been 100 in February, his studio in Milan is one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen.

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He collected objects endlessly, getting a sense of how they worked, of how they could be stretched or improved and what the most practical next steps would be.

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All photos April 2018.

Overheard in Oregon

Listening in on conversations around me is a bit of an addiction of mine, and whilst the home turf provides plenty of gems, travel always throws up a good few oddities too. In this respect, I can only say that Oregon has delivered gold. Here’s the latest crop, with thanks to the Saint of Soho for extra reporting:

“He turned up in a fur coat and was being very aggressively flirty.”

“So then they decided to swap partners, but they all kept their own shares, and a month later Mikey arrived. I think it says a lot that he loved you enough to give you more shares.”

“I just really want Franco to have something for himself like that and then everyone will love him for it.”

“He’s a millionaire, and not a prisoner.”

“Isn’t that the most beautiful door? I might have to take a photo of your door. Is it real?”

“We’ve got about an hour to kill so we can go home and phone the coastguard, I want you there with me when I call.”

“The only reason I stole from you is because I thought you weren’t looking.”

“He was super-helpful, so I had this laxative fish”  “And Mario was ok with that?”  “He wanted to help.”

“I’ve had super good birthday cakes whenever I’ve come up here.”

”So then I ruined his birthday and we were totally not friends for a few years” (N.B., despite my raging curiosity and some vague mentions of a glittery finger, I have no idea what the birthday-ruining act was. Sorry. And if glittery finger is some kind of euphemism, I don’t want to know.)

“I think I’ll just see what jobs are going.” “So what are you gonna be? A sous chef?!

“I don’t know your nuances bruv; I need ALL your nuances.”

“It’s the empathic life, it’s hard being fucking intelligent.”

(Guy speaking to his dog, whom some girls had stopped to admire.) “Thanks buddy, you helped me out today there. I was gonna buy a toupee or something otherwise.”

Grand ambitions

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There’s something magnificently crazy about writing a book on accordion playing round the world (useless fact – Haile Selassie had an imperial accordion troupe), but what great illustrations to fit the joie de vivre of such a project.

Perfume: go, go

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I was pretty sceptical when I heard that Somerset House was putting on a show about perfume, and even more so that it would be done in the manner of a contemporary art installation. Well that’ll show me – it was actually great fun, very well thought out, would be perfect to do either on a date or with friends, and is actually both non-intimidating and witty, a real achievement for a craft that is second only to wine-making for jargon, history and insiders’ snobbism.

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As the notes to the show said, self-taught perfumiers are now breaking the mould, getting away both from the stuffiness of some schools, and the idea of scent as a marketing product. I won’t tell you too much about the perfumes in this exhibition as the whole point of the showing is to have a guessing game / voyage of discovery of your own, but you can see from the pictures above how inventive the sets were. In other rooms you smelt white cotton scarves or brilliant liberty-style print pouches, whilst the room with “paint pots” inspired this response from some other visitors:

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I didn’t get so creative myself, but enjoyed the game of hide and seek, and the weekend I went there was also an interesting series of presentations from perfumiers at the end in the testing lab.

PS in the first room you smelt the bowling balls…it felt quite James Bond, actually.

Blog of the week & Mexico City

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I’m still completely absorbed by Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio, and these passages (dinner; setting up a hotel) show why. If it fuels your fever, you really must see Ben Pentreath’s blogs here and here. Normally I dial in to Ben’s pastoral idylls on Mon mornings, but these posts from his travels carry some heat.