I don’t believe I am giving too much away – thinking in terms of spoiler alerts – when I say here and now that yes the aforementioned dies in Death of a Salesman. That is to say, Anthony Sher pegs it in a self-inflicted kind of a way just near the end of the Arthur Miller play that has just closed at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s St Martin’s Lane. By way of context, since this always matters at least to me, I don’t think I have ever seen a more crowded bunch of central London streets of a summer’s afternoon than when we emerged from a New York brownstone street beautifully recreated in W1, and into the steamy heat and teeming crowds milling round the Seven Dials the other Saturday, as this show ended its excellent run that same day. I might add that Sher has been brilliant as long as I have known his performances, beginning with the extraordinary television dramatisation of ‘The History Man’ in 1981 when he knocked everyone for six.
Arthur Miller was a lefty sort of playright, in this work blowing the cover on the American dream at the latter end of the distinctly smug 1940s when America had won the war, defeated all comers, and now ruled the roost with the American Way. It was smug here in Britain too of course, later on. But as always the USA was way ahead of us, and more to the point it was even more definitively global top dog – a position we had long since had to give up (without ever quite being able to admit it to ourselves). In the play our hero has bought into the dream bigtime, and convinced himself he is part of it, and talked himself into a corner as only a saleman could. But the unfeeling giant chewed him up and spat him out, and his humiliation is completed by his two sons’ struggles with the post-war world. It wasn’t meant to be like that.
In fact, he could be taken as an analogy for the UK, still endlessly deluding itself with reruns of past glories, reality only now biting into the flabby posterior, and all is ignominy from now on. It may be smug of me to say that nevertheless London seems to have it all right now…this summer.. It’s perkier than one could think possible, for reasons that are unclear.
I’m off to Edinburgh soon to get another perspective. It’s my second favourite city in these islands, but can things ever be the same now? The world moves on, and history isn’t dead after all. It’s happening all around us. Come next winter, when the power goes off, we shall see…
Something a bit new for me – two free tickets to an event called ‘Masterpiece 2015, London’, held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. On grass barely recovering from the Chelsea Flower Show, a vast marquee has been erected, with one face cunningly disguised as a long brick building of perhaps Queen Anne or Georgian appearance. How did they do that? It looked like a gigantic photograph of a real house, only slightly spoilt by a portico that didnt really go with it – someone’s idea of a home improvement deriving from tastes more appropriate to Chigwell than Chelsea I reckon. I’m no expert. It was a tad spooky to see this pop-up building sitting there in the evening sun at a rakish angle on the hottest July day in London since the dawn of time, or some such. Apparently it’s there for 41 days, most of which are spent putting the 12000 sq metre show together and taking it all away again afterwards. It has 2200 internal walls.
Inside was air conditioned, thankfully. Our bags were searched, and we puzzled over why folk were being asked if they were carrying any personal jewellery. The show itself was vast, comprising aisles of instant art galleries, antique dealers, jewellers and so forth, from all over the world it seemed, including Pimlico around the corner. What’s more there were mini-me versions of London restaurants like Scotts (where Nigella and Satchi had their alleged difference of opinion a while back), Le Caprice and the Ivy, all doing good business. International collectors and museum curators get a preview day at the fair, after which its open to ticket holders for just seven days. Quite honestly, I found it all rather amazing.
I’d worn the wrong shoes for this and opted out of the tour about half way round the vast number of stands and found a seat to sit and watch the comings and goings – what a wuss! It’s not the sort of place where one walks out carrying ones purchases in a carrier bag, since prices seem to start at around £180,000 and I think the dealers like to wait ’til the cheque has cleared before they take the oil painting off the wall and apply the string and brown paper. So most people seemed to be carrying only their drinks (mostly white wine – if it was being handed out free somewhere I missed it, damn!). I’d expected the folk to be wealthy, but there were few signs of conspicuous consumption and while many were smartly turned out, many were not.
It did bring home how international this city is, and how many more livelihoods now depend to some degree on the fact that London is such a magnet to the wealthy these days. All those shopfitters, catering staff, taxi-drivers, security guards, plus the young girls handing out the magazines and whatnots, only benefit from the jobs created by this craziness. One worries about our economic dependence on such things of course…what if the rich all decide to go to Stuttgart or something (only joking!).
I fancied a rather nice soldier’s helmet, Greek, from the Bronze Age perhaps, as it was bronze. Maybe 3000 years old. Talk about iconic…this wasn’t the one but it’s not dissimilar
I didn’t ask the price, because if you have to ask then you can’t afford it. I had to walk on by. On our way out, our bags were searched again, and the personal jewellery question earlier the evening then made sense. I surrendered all the Patek Phillipe watches I’d inadvertently picked up without thinking, as one does. We walked to the bus stop, and eventually had a slightly uncomfortable meal in Villiers Street, wiping our sweating faces with our napkins, which probably isn’t the done thing even in Villiers Street, whose slightly scruffy,even smelly, vibe I have always liked.
After a week away, we return to find the garden vanishing under green – leaves, weeds, grass, growth, some new blossom even. Mid-May just brings amazing energy to vegetation here, both wanted and not wanted. So cutting back, mowing, weeding, pruning will have to take priority over new planting until order and discipline is restored to the unruly, verdant little sods that over-populate these beds, banks and terraces. I’ll show ’em who’s boss, especially those evil Spanish bluebells! Meanwhile the windows all seem to need painting at once, this summer. And I must clamber up on the flat roof to unblock the gutters and downpipes bunged up by recent gales. More creative projects and plans are being crowded out by care and maintenance…dull, dull, dull.
July postscript: the evil Spanish bluebells have got their own back. I carefully bagged up the wretched bulbs or whatever you called them, failed to take them to the council’s green waste thingy, two months back, and they now stink so much I can’t take them anywhere…
Wildlife is not something you might immediately think of when visiting or contemplating Greater London, but there is plenty of it around, especially in the outer boroughs. Personally, I turn off immediately any radio or TV programme featuring wildlife, but I have my own David Attenborough moments here sometimes, keeping stock still as I spot something and try to work out what it is, perhaps speculating with my wife in hushed tones. Of course, the four-legged wildlife is mostly foxes and grey squirrels, but also horses and sometimes sheep. Deer have been seen nearby, and also lizards, fieldmice,rabbits and cats seemingly from Bengal. Round the birdfeeders (maintaining these is a new chore) are variously tree-creepers, woodpeckers (greater-spotted only), inumerable finches, robins, collared doves and – trampling the flowerbeds in search of dropped seeds – some very fat woodpigeons. Sometimes we can hear shooting not that far away, so someone else at least enjoys nature’s bounty roundabout. At dusk there are bats. Stagbeetles are another hazard. One of our cats caught a shrew. A bullfinch has this week been trying to get us to move out of his territory, and we are wondering quite what lengths he will go to in his zeal. There are also Yetis here, plus Spitfires and last week some Hawks (red, noisy, in amazingly tight formation). A typhoon was screaming around the rooftops. I am told there were Yaks.
There is perhaps something about being late middle-aged that makes listening to familar music in a public place or watching a magical play a risky business. This being London there is an abundance of such pleasures, and the risk is becoming such that I really should remember to pack Ray Bans for the inevitable hollow, red eyes which seem to result from these forays. Provoking even greater lachrymosity than usual this week was a terrific musical with music and lyrics by Ray Davies, telling the story of the early days of The Kinks. As soon as his younger brother Dave (brilliantly played by George Maguire) picked up his guitar and crashed out the raw opening of “You Really Got Me“, stabbing his little portable amplifier’s single speaker with a flick knife ( I think) to get the right quality of harshness into the main riff, my eyes prickled with absurd pleasure and I was away. My wife covered her ears. It was 1964 again, and I was 12 or 13, and it was North London. They got me alright.
I didn’t know Fortis Green where the brothers lived in their little terraced house, but it wasn’t that far away from my Kensal Rise, which had a similar feel. I only wished I had seen them live at least once.
Architectural models are one thing, but a model of a city is quite another. Imagine a model of a dense urban area about 10 miles long, and 3 miles wide, a model updated on a regular basis as major new developments are proposed. You can go and marvel at it at the Building Design Centre in Store Street, London, until later this year. This is Piper’s detailed scale model (1:1500 scale) of London’s heart, focussed on the two banks of the river from Barking in the east to Paddington in the west, not unlike the area featured in the map at the top of this blog. The 12 metre long model is the centrepiece of an exhibition of the London’s present and future development, and it’s truly remarkable in its ambition and execution. The centre has other interesting exhibitions too, sometimes, and a nice and very reasonably priced cafe. Store Street itself is one of London’s relatively unsung gems with a variety of interesting small shops in a refurbished terrace, and wonderful plane trees. The vista to the east terminates abruptly in the Stalinesque bulk of the Senate House of London University. To my mind, this general part of London, Fitzrovia I suppose, lying either side of Tottenham Court Road has a raffish studenty flavour. In recent times media and advertising firms have dominated to the west of the main road, spreading northwards out of Soho Square which remains the home of the British film industry and TV production companies. Remants of the fashion and garment trade can be found too, which sort of spread eastwards from Oxford Circus, the London College of Fashion marking its western edge. (Doctoring occupies the area lying to the west.) Northwards up Tottenham Court Road, Warren Street was once noted for its second-hand car trade.
In Chenies Street, an unusual pile of painted brickwork has been plonked most discourteously right in front of curving Victorian terrace. It looks like some kind of military bunker. In truth this is one of several access shafts hastily constructed close to seven stations on the Northern line of the London Underground, early in the 2nd world war. These constructions had their origins in a plan to build an express tube line alongside the existing line, by-passing many stations and helping to take the strain off it, a scheme which hadn’t got going before war loomed. Someone, in Whitehall perhaps, later had the bright idea of building the access shafts and short sections of railway tunnel to act as air raid shelters, with a view to joining them up to form the planned new express railway after the war…but this join-up never happened. The Chenies Street complex was the eastern entrance to the shelter complex built at Goodge Street Station, with the western entrance lying on Tottenham Court Road itself, and still also visible. The complex was used as an HQ by the allied commander General Eisenhower during the war, and is now a commercial document storage facility named after him. All the bombproof mass concrete structures remain at the various locations. They included ventilation systems, gas filtration equipment, stairs, lift shafts and sewage pumping arrangements for the shelters far below. Although completed in 1942, the complexes were not opened to the public as shelters until the return of air raids on London in 1944, this time consisting of attacks by pilotless V1s and V2s rather than manned bomber aircraft. Seventy years on, they remain as reminders of how the great model of London might well have looked rather different.
A French King of Spain from a family named after a biscuit fishes with his miniature rod for a goldfish in its circular glass bowl in his lap, while chatting to it amiably. A man with tights and no balls sings falsetto to help soothe the King’s agitation. He flirts with the Italian-born Queen in a hole cut into a forest. The English fleet threatens the empire. An actor who has just played Thomas Cromwell to great acclaim and is now a national treasure gets to play the King, his wife having written the play and given him some cracking lines. A few too many unwarranted fucks perhaps (where is the Lord Chamberlain when you need him?). Your author is identified by the King as a poacher, and fears for his dignity – a frisson of terror.. Fortunately he could not reach the stage even if summoned, as the audience is crammed in too tightly. The new Elizabethan densely intimate theatre made entirely of wood is lit by candles, and steals half the scenes.