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.