Turner’s London

One benefit of having a rather vague theme like ‘London Miscellany’ is that almost anything can be squeezed in, since a London connection can be found in so many things. So it is that the film ‘Mr Turner’, released last November in the UK, finally gets a mention here. Happily coinciding with a major exhibition of JMW Turner’s late paintings at the old Tate Gallery, located on the Thames, the film revealed to me at least that Mr Turner was a Londoner, and ended his days a couple of miles upstream of the Tate at Cremorne Road, Chelsea. In fact, he lived at various addresses up and down the Thames in his time including lodgings near Syon Park and Hammersmith Mall and of course in Margate – way downstream in North Kent. He lived too in Queen Anne Street in Westminster, a little further from the river, and for some street scenes here the film uses some beautifully preserved roads behind Westminster Abbey which often pop up in films, so perfect are they for filming 18th or 19th century scenes.

The huge Turner collection at the Tate is housed in the Clore Gallery. As one sees in the film, Turner left his art to the nation rather than selling it. Tate, whose wealth created the gallery that bears his name, was of course a sugar magnate, and made his money refining the produce of the sugar plantations of the West Indies in particular, which were manned by slaves for centuries. One wonders how long it will be before some publicity seeking loons seek to make an issue of the origins of the gallery and the many public libraries which Henry Tate endowed. Tate and Lyle remains a big UK company, with a large factory downstream still refining sugar.

In Turner’s day the gallery land was the site of the ghastly Millbank Penitentiary. This vast repository for the criminal and the unlucky was a curious shape, one hint of which can be found in the way the eastern boundary with the neighbouring property (in which I once worked) goes off the road at a strange angle. This is what a guide book of the day said about it:

“This important establishment was formed for the purpose of trying the effect of a system of imprisonment, founded on humane and rational principles; in which the prisoners should be separated into classes, be compelled to work, and their religious and moral habits properly attended to. The external walls form an irregular octagon, and enclose no less than eighteen acres of ground. This vast space comprehends seven distinct though conjoined masses of building, the centre being a regular hexagon, and the others branching from its respective sides. By this means the governor or overseer may, at all times, from the windows in the central part, have the power of overlooking every division of the prison. The buildings are sufficiently capacious to accommodate 1000 persons. No person can be admitted to view this prison without an order from the Home Secretary of State, or unless he is accompanied by one of the committee of management.

I don’t know if it’s true of all other cities, but in London one can find state-owned sites recycled for a variety of purposes. For example, the site of the Bethleham hospital across the river near the Elephant and Castle later became the Imperial War Museum, while the military hospital next to the Tate has become home to Chelsea School of Art.   It makes history and topography even more fascinating, to know a bit about site history. Incidentally, talking of property, Charlie Clore who endowed the wing dedicated to Turner’s Bequest was a major developer, amongst other things, and famously made money by building Centre Point and keeping it empty for decades.

He was also less well known as a client of the equally well-connected Christine Keeler, who died a while back, followed more latterly by Mandy Rice Davies, famous for her words to the judge (see below). Now there’s another story! Suffice it to say that when the official report of Lord Justice Denning into what is known as the Profumo affair came out in about 1963, my father sent me aged 12 to Her Majesty’s Stationery Office Bookshop in Holborn to purchase a copy. I think I might have it somewhere here…Apart from the Highway Code, it was HMSO’s best-selling publication of the year. Truly an eye-opener, and it more than anything else perhaps helped bring about a degree of open scepticism about the establishment and our institutions that superceded the somewhat complacent view of itself that Britain displayed in the 1950s.

Three Chekhovs in two days

Once again I find myself taken off to the theatre, the National, in a small group – this time for a full immersion in Young Chekhov. For the matinee, we were treated to Platonov, happily somewhat reduced in length from the original eight hours of material which was never staged in the author’s lifetime (he’d never finished it). All the usual themes are already in place in this first play – the rural setting, latter 19th century Russian ‘home counties’, bored brooding privileged middle-class characters with too much time on their hands, given to introspection and self-destruction through drink and debt. A doctor and a schoolmaster, landowner and retired army officers populate this first play, as with all his subsequent ones it seems. These contrast with the rich variety of female characters – wives and daughters in most cases. All beautifully observed, and even I can see how revolutionary it was for a play to consist of such a depiction of fairly ordinary people’s domestic and personal concerns. A play with no big plots, no melodrama, just friends, neighbours and families interacting, with the focus on human emotions mainly, though not without some dramatic developments including violent death.

I found myself looking for anything that might hint at or presage the horrors ahead for Russia, or provide some sort of explanation, but there isn’t much.   There’s economic upheaval, but the same went on all over Europe as it adapted to the  huge growth in US economic strength and the decline in rural economies as urbanisation took off. These people are not very concerned with big politcal ideas, and don’t see much amiss apart from worrying about their incomes and properties.

The three plays employ the same stunning set, with its elements regrouped and rearranged, varying just enough to keep it fresh, as do the actors. Some old cards like Brian Pettifer, Peter Egan and Anna Chancellor mix it with the younger ones. Ivanov and The Seagull present us with some similar characters once more…the doctor, the schoolmaster, the landowner, and similar dilemmas and angst, useless but engaging chaps various, and tearful or feisty women. One can see how Chekhov developed and refined his tropes by exploring them repeatedly.

Ivanov went down a treat after high tea, and The Seagull – well it just flew by (the following evening). How true to the originals these renditions are I have no idea: I suspect we would find them a bit turgid without updating of the language, plus the whole business of translation and how that works. Anyhow, all  enjoyable bigly.

Goodbye, fellow bloggers

Today I went through all the long list of blogs that I’ve followed over the years and realised that they have all stopped, bar one or two (thank goodness for these persisters …you know who you are!).

I know I post less often, and in fact a whole blog series was terminated a few years back, though it had simply run its course and I hadn’t simply given up or lost heart. I’ve never minded too much that hardly anyone reads my posts, nor have I made any efforts to increase my readership. My own declining reader numbers is partly down to the absence of fellow bloggers these days, because there was always been the sense that if you read mine I will read yours – something I’ve always liked about the WordPress community.

My own view is that changes to WordPress a while back have reduced its appeal. It used to be that one logged in and the site would suggest blogs to visit, quite randomly, and I think this helped everyone. It was also tempting to search WordPress by using the handy search box and category lists.  While it’s still possible to search,  one has to actively go and look for the search facility.

WordPress also gave a convincing appearance of being run by people who enjoyed reading blogs and making personal recommendations, and if one hadn’t posted in a while they would remind one to do so.  There was a competitive element. But now it seems entirely anonymous…merely a neutral technical platform. I think all these things have actively undermind those of us who saw this site as a bit of social media, rather than simply a computer programme.

I am aware that I used to put more effort into finding blogs to read, and signing up to the ones I liked, and that this kept the whole business of being here alive and kicking. One might get new followers to replace the lost readers, for example. There clearly is a turnover of readers, and one needs to keep up.

But perhaps it’s something else…a tendency for bloggers to suddenly stop after three  or four years. Often you can see from a defunct blog that an attempt was made to recommence posting, no doubt with good intentions, and then this too ceases.  I can understand this. People’s lives change, and other things become more important. Or they may feel discouraged by a lack of response. Or the urge may simply have passed or been redirected. But for those who remain, a virtual friend has been removed and a twinge of loss is the result.

Well, I intend to continue, and the longer winter evenings always help by providing one with more time indoors to wonder what to do next. I might even find a decent template to use and bring back some illustrations.

 

Short Story, owing its origins to a late cheese sandwich

I do need to explain, and quickly, how we came to be found in bed together. It may otherwise look rather bad; and for you in particular since you approach your 50th wedding anniversary.

Yes, we were in a hospital bed, and yes it was on the roof of a large building in New York. But we were head to tail, and you had thought I was dying.

In fact, though, I was fine and was only in the bed to comfort an attractive Polish nurse who had been stabbed by another attractive young woman to whom she had made a lesbian pass right in front of me as I lay in the bed under observation following the train crash nearby. Yes, it is complicated.

Anyway, you’d found a rather nice photograph of me from circa 1967 and brought it to me in case I wanted a copy, having heard about the train crash. You didn’t know that I was not only the hero of the hour in the aftermath of the crash but also the cause of the catastrophe in the first place by having attempted to drive the train, for reasons that are unclear.

Finding me in a hospital bed and seeing the bedding looking bloody, you’d climbed into the bed to comfort your dying ex-pupil. I woke to find you there, which was nice, but added to my sense of confusion. The photo was remarkable: I appeared to be relaxing in a rubber dinghy with trunks and sunglasses, and had been snapped from above, giving me a rather louche appearance for a sixteen year old. Someone had annotated the print approvingly, but the effect was spoilt by it being stapled to a list of well-known celebrity paedophiles whose activities had come to light in recent years.

So that’s it, in a nutshell. I hope this clears everything up.

 

 

 

 

London to Edinburgh

No, I didn’t give up my seat for Jeremy, mainly because I didn’t see him. Mine was also a busy train, and reservations are definitely a good idea in August. Incidentally, my first ever LP was bought from Branson’s scruffy so-called Virgin record shop in Oxford Street, back in 1971:  I feel so connected to these beardy guys! (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/jeremy-corbyn-admits-seats-were-free-on-virgin-service-amid-traingate-row-a3328461.html)

As always I loved the journey uphill to Scottyland, the main pleasures of which begin in Northumberland and contimue through to the glimpses of Arthur’s Seat (more impressive than Jeremy’s) and Calton Hill. I may have said before that Edinburgh is my second favourite city, and beats my home town Cardiff. Only London trumps the Athens o’ the North.

This was my second or third trip to the Festival.My memory now is such that I have just had to check whether I have posted about it before, and of course I did last year. This year we hadn’t booked any big plays, but managed only one small one – plus two song recitals, a choral work, two talks, and goodnesss now I have to check the tickets to see if I have missed anything out.* What was I saying about memory? It proved to be a nostalgia-fest.

‘Oh, Hello’, the play, was very funny, but deeply sad too. The name Charles Hawtrey may not mean much nowadays, but to British cinema audiences of the 50s/60s he livened up every Carry On film he appeared in…and he was a star in a very British sort of way. As always, his art was very much himself it seems. The main prop on stage was a bottle of gin…I don’t think I need say more. It made me cry a bit, rather like gin does.

Tim Parks’ talk at the book-tenty-thing was excellent. It made me want to start on my novel, in true Pooter fashion.  I think his point was that for any author, at least writers of fiction, a book is a life event, and books work best when something of the author is allowed into them, that some life-adversity is essential, that sometimes books are best understood by looking at the author’s own personality and experience. Howard Jacobsen too was inspiring.

I knew the choral work was going to be a difficult one for me. We sat in Greyfriars Church, and within 3 or 4 bar of the opening chorus tears were streaming down my face. I don’t even like choral works, but this one – Bach’s St John Passion – I’d sung in at school, as a treble. We won’t dwell on it here. I should have worn dark glasses. I know I can never join a choir again…that much is clear.

Same thing again at the song recital, at St Andrews. I lasted as long as ‘Is my team ploughing’, the 1896 poem by AE Housman set to music by Vaughan Williams. His poems were in the knapsacks of troops in the Boer War and the Great War, many of whom never saw their farms and homes again of course. I was in the front row, right in front of the singer (excellent) and I do hope he didn’t notice the sniffing….

Happily, there was no danger of any tears at the other recital, despite it featuring the songs of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel. Suffice it to say that the audience were invited to sing along to ‘Non, je ne regrette rien‘, which must be a first. It may have all been a spoof…one can’t be sure on the Fringe.

  • I left out tw0 whole events: a wonderful tribute to Flanders and Swann in an ace performance by genuinely witty and musical chaps in their own right, Tim Fitzhigham and Duncan Walsh-Atkins ; and Adam Kay performing some of Tom Lehrer’s acidic songs.

Aladdin

The owner of the dog that I walk sometimes has got tangled up in another West End show, so I may as well give it a mention here. For both their sakes, I’m glad to report another favourable reception from the critics including a spot-on review by Michael Billious in the Gordian which awards four stars to this riotous musical fantasy.  You don’t need to take any children to enjoy this spectacle…just quite a lot of money!  Luckily my preview seat was free. Though a dress rehearsal, the whole caboodle was faultless. Funny, even touching at times, and always engaging.

 

 

The witches of Chatterton Village

No, seriously, I was walking the dog that I walk from time to time, and it was dark. I am not unduly nervous about venturing into the rec* in the dark armed with Mabel, because she would charm the socks off any knife-wielding maniac that leaps out from the undergrowth, I fondly imagine. I was though keeping an eye on a collection of wavering lights in the shrubbery near the centre of the park, which is unfenced but also unlit. So round we went, and Mabel regularly vanished into the gloom and then reappeared. I have to confess that one major problem with walking dogs in the dark is that it is harder to scoop the poop if you don’t have a clue where your dog is at all times or what it might be doing. So apologies to anyone who puts their foot in it on my account. I must take a torch.

Mabel gets excited when Gorgeous George appears… she can see him coming a long way off not just because of his white fur but because he has a lurid flashing red collar that means his owner can see where he has raced off to by the light emitting diodes that flash on and off in a rather manic manner, and which light up his rather gormless doggy face in pink. She runs up to George, has a sniff and then yelps with either great fear or great pleasure when George lunges at her in an excited fashion…then she runs off again, and the performance is repeated when we come across him again further round the circuit.

She’s more wary though of the flashing lights in the middle of the rec, and as we get closer I can see that it is a group of figures holding a mixture of mobile phones and torches, standing in a circle…This is most odd, because teenagers do not normally draw attention to themselves in this way when they congregate to do whatever it is that they do in parks after dark. Suddenly there is a polite round of applause, which marks out the group as most definitely not being either teenagers or maniacs of any recognisable description, though the world is changing so fast and it’s hard to keep up with all current trends I find. On the ground I can now see lanterns made from hollowed out pumpkins, with candles inside, but i still cant make out any people, though now the lights and lanterns are moving apart and some shadowy shapes can be seen in the murk.. And a host of diminutive witches take on almost human form, as they drift towards me and Mabel, cloaks flapping and high pointed hats bobbing. It’s a coven, only much larger than any encountered on the blasted heath by Macbeth, who in any case didn’t live anywhere near London at any stage in his career as an put-upon husband. So, yes, it’s the witches of Chatterton Village, a new coven on me. Average age about 7 or 8 I’d say but no less scary for all that. Be very afraid.

Mabel wasn’t unduly bothered though. Perhaps if they had had flashing wands…

* the ‘rec’ is the normal abbreviation for ‘recreation ground’, which is a normally large expanse of grass set aside for public recreation, such as playing ball games, walking dogs, and conducting oneself in various anti-social ways, often with one’s peer group, when you think no-one can see.

A palpable hit

St-Johns-Gate-by-Nathan-Willock1-987x658

Always something new in Shakespeare, isn’t there? I have seen a couple of Hamlets but never known that the expression ‘a palpable hit’, which often pops up in reviews, comes directly from this play. In fact it must once have been a little in-joke by a theatrical critic, then endlessly recycled ever since. Hamlet is well known as a rich source of expressions which are still widely used, though one wonders for how much longer as we all move further towards text-speak and e-mail language. It’s one reason why exposure to Shakespeare plays, as with the King James’ Bible, is said by our elders and betters to be a must if one seeks to be familiar with the culture of these islands, at least through the written or spoken word.I believe it now, though it took a long time!
Anyway, Laetes’ foil touches Hamlet’s arm and yes, it’s a palpable hit. Of course, so too is the production at the Barbican, which nears the end of its limited run. It is excellent – don’t ever be tempted to believe negative sounding newspaper reviews that focus on marginal matters. Critics will often tend to react against hype and PR by finding things to be sniffy about in an attempt to convince us that they are bravely resisting the general tide of opinion.
Somehow I had seats in the front row, while a camera on a sort of railway track glided noiselessly along two rows behind me, with the fireman and driver perched on little seats either side listening to The Bay City Rollers (possibly) on their headphones. Somehow it was the night that the play was being relayed live to 87% of UK cinemas and many more around the world, and being recorded too, meaning an audience of millions (who may well be treated to glimpses of my ever-growing bald patch -I’ll have to buy the DVD when it comes out just to see how bad it’s getting).
Today I went to Smithfield, which lies just to the north of the Barbican. Or maybe it’s Clerkenwell. Either way, this trip was entirely unconnected to yesterday’s, or so I imagined. I visited a museum of the Order of St John’s, located in a Tudor gatehouse (pictured) of the long lost priory of the original Order, a rebuild of an earlier building destroyed during the so-called Peasants’ Revolt led by Watt Tyler. It‘s a long fascinating story, but one fact connects the gatehouse to Shakespeare’s play. He would have brought his manuscript along to this building to get clearance to its performance from the Master of the Revels, the official stage censor of the day, who happened to occupy some of the rooms a while after the building was confiscated from the Order of St John by King Henry the Eighth. I can’t resist a coincidence like that.

In the end, it was time to find The Road to Jerusalem*. A thousand years on.

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/oct/16/benedict-cumberbatch-hamlet-nt-live-barbican*

* a pub round the corner. An amazing one.

When I’m Sixty-Four

Nothing much to do with London, except that it was recorded at Abbey Road studios. I wasn’t that far away as it later turned out. But to be frank I’m stretching a point to mention at all any of the following, in a blog ostensibly about London things.

You all know the song, or should do at your age. It was written by a sixteen year old boy. When it was released a few years later on, I was sixteen myself. Being sixteen –  what a great title for a blog – I had much the same view of men in their mid-sixties as he did. Such men were even older than my Dad, who was already impossibly old at 50. The song featured on perhaps the most successful and innovative record album of the 20th century.

You will have guessed perhaps, if you are paying any attention, that I am now 64, although that is not as old as the author of the song who is way ahead. He went on to become one of the most successful ever songwriters, though this one was a tad sentimental for many tastes.

‘When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now. Will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?’ Etc*

Yes I too can be found doing the garden, digging the weeds. I can be handy, mending a fuse.

And so it goes…

* extract quoted for educational purposes. Song copyright:  Sony.

Kinky Boots

My sisters and even I were known for our fine legs once upon a time, though mine remained well hidden. Perhaps if I had access to the right footwear, life might have been different. I could have been a contender  (perhaps) for the fine line up of long male legs very much on display at the opening night at the Adelphi, London, of the UK production of the hit Broadway musical, based on a modest British film of 10 years back, based on a true story, set somewhere in Northampton, some time ago.

I am lucky enough to know someone in the crew and to walk their dog occasionally so was blessed with tickets for the opening night – and quite a night it was, with no less a personage than his eminence Christopher Biggins sat two rows in front, and in good form. I hope he stayed for the party afterwards. Also present was a noticeable woman with white hair, who rushed out of the auditorium a few moments into the final number with a gaggle of others. How rude, I thought, and surely too early to be rushing for the last train home to Petts Wood or Dagenham.

Well, I wasn’t clued up enough to recognise Cyndi Lauper, the Tony winning songwriter for the show, until I was on the train home (via Petts Wood). That would explain how she reappeared onstage among the cast in the final curtain call, possibly. I bet she stayed for the party.

Reviews have been strong. My crew-member should have a job for a while longer in in this uncertain business and the dog will be assured of a decent diet even if she doesn’t see that much of her talented mistress.

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