It had to happen

It had to happen one day, but today of all days? A party political manifesto is published that includes a proposal that some have described as a dementia tax, and while musing about this in the kitchen I pour boiling water into the tea caddy and thereby waste 20 or so teabags at a stroke. I can only hope the worms in the compost heap get something out of the sudden influx of caffeine.

I do not wish to make light of dementia, unlike those who absurdly dismiss the Tory proposal in those ignorant terms. I’ve watched relatives and in-laws deteriorate through formally diagnosed dementia and am well aware that absent-mindedness is not a sign of its imminent onset, or indeed anything else much except the fact that it becomes a bit harder to do two things at once as one gets on a bit. I long ago stopped enjoying music or speech radio while trying to work, and I am best not to talk while driving because I will miss a turning or forget where I am going momentarily. It’s simply a bit more difficult to concentrate, and harder to screen out distractions or to switch in an instant from one thought to another. I gather this is almost normal as one ages, though we age variably of course.

Anyhoo, this is London-related only in the sense that me and my compost bin are somewhere in Greater London. The sun is going down to my right, and a lad who knocked at the door has just persuaded me to sponsor him for a run round Hyde Park five times tomorrow, for the princely sum of £5. Such is life that I struggled to believe him, and still have doubts that this is genuine, especially as he ended the conversation by seeking the cash in advance. I persuaded him to come back when he had completed the run, but even so I have a residual feeling that I am the fool on the hill.

And did you know that the very engaging Beatles song of that name is about 50 years old? It was the first track on the second record of the double EP released not long before Christmas 1967, which I listened to rapt with my first girlfriend at her home, over and over again. It remains one of the best releases of the era  (ignore the accompanying film, which was unduly self-indulgent). Fifty years ago was some year for me.

Sunday 2 April

We began walking from the new Blackfriars Station, high up there above the River. It’s now possible to sit at a table and look down on the Thames and the passing road and river trafiic in a rare example of a station cafe in central London that is ‘train-side’ of the barriers. I have fond memories of the two other examples I can think of, namely the bars that once graced Baker Street and Sloane Square stations, but there are also one or two refreshment rooms on platforms , notably at Waterloo East. I doubt if the London Bridge ones will be back, sadly.

Outside, The Blackfriars survives as a relic of the golden age of pubs. It is a gem of a place, a triangular pub squeezed up against a viaduct which has now shrunk away, making it look like a solitary tooth. Not far to the west is Whitefriars Street, crossing Tudor Lane – a whole set of images conjured up in these names. A little further lies Bouverie Street, once at the heart of the newspaper industry and still nominally home to The Sun. It wasn’t possible to walk through The Temple so we ducked up the cobbled lane on its eastern edge to emerge into The Strand. Though heading north, we couldn’t resist seeing what church that was just to the left, and inside the porch we were amazed to find it impossibly packed with congregation, all the more strange because the singing emerging from St Dunstan-in-the-West sounded very much eastern in flavour. It proved to be the spritual home of the Romainian Orthodox Church, and it’s dedicated itself to promoting Christian unity and is known as the Church for Europe.

We strolled up Fetter Lane, the origins of the name being a matter of dispute. I rather like the idea that a Fetter or Feutor was a worthless fellow. We passed the site of Clifford’s Inn, one of London’s slightly mysterious Inns of Court, dissolved in 1903. New Fetter Lane brought us onto High Holborn, somewhere west of the old Fleet River, and we continued north up Leather Lane, which runs parallel to the more famous Hatton Garden. Somewhere north we pass Dickens House and the little museum there. Now there was someone who could write!

A further few twists and turns and I am confonted by my past life, or to be more precise the life of nearly 50 years ago, still vivid today in my internalities. Judd Street, just south of St Pancras, where right next to the lovely jolly cafe where we stopped to eat outside in the sun is a basement window, behind which I spent many formative teenage hours which led in a year or two to marriage and the first of my two lives. That confrontation was not anything I’d expected on this pleasant Sunday morning walk.  London is like that now…full of memories and some unexpected connections. That’s all good then.

The Honorary Londoner

I am not a Londoner, just like most peope who live here. We’ve mostly come from somewhere else, and stayed on. In a city as dynamic and dominant as this, it’s not surprising. And it’s fair to say that with a surrounding area of about some 100 miles across (I am guessing), many former londoners have simply shifted out beyond the boundaries to live in what are quaintly called the Home Counties. Though it’s been a while since I saw that term used. These are the various counties which abut London, suh as Surrey or Essex, or lie at one remove such as Sussex or Berkshire. All are full of emigres from London, as well as many people whose economic lives have depended or still depend on London in some way. I imagine most major cities have such a layer around them. The true natives of such counties needless to say slighly resent the outward migration of Londoners, and indeed resent too the outward expansion of the city’s boundaries though it’s now many years since the last (1963 in fact was the last time this happened).

I digress though. My point if there is one is to say that while not born here, I have lived here all my adult life and some of my younger life too. In fact, on a quick calculation I have spent about 55 of my 65 years here in the capital which makes for a strong connection, added to which is the fact that my mother was born and bred in London, as I think were her parents, which gets us back to the 1880s or thereabouts. So when many years ago I was chatting to a former boss about our respective backgrounds – his being more thoroughbred Londonish than mine – he came up with the idea that my standing was that of an ‘honorary Londoner’, a kind of grudging recognition.

To be frank, only a born Londoner – a very rare animal these days – would even think in such terms.  Most people in the UK would regard London as a necessary evil, and not a place one would imagine aspiring to be a full native of…an indigene. Even a Londoner might think twice before boasting of being a true Londoner, except to make the point that one is a member of a shrinking minority, outnumbered by ever larger numbers of incomers or various kinds. Many people in the UK are happy to claim that they have either never been to London, or went once but never again.  Many who live here wish they didn’t, or are here merely to get themselves to a position where they can return home again for good, wherever ‘home’ may be. I’ve not felt for a very long time that my birthplace is home. In fact I feel distictly uncomfortable there. I cannot sing ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner‘ with full conviction; but London is my home, and I never want to live anywhere else –  and I think this confirms me as a born-again Londoner.

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.