The Art of Recovery

My weekend was something of a cultural binge: taking in two (and a bit) art exhibitions and some 12 hours of theatrical extravaganza (though, so far as I know, there are no suggested government limits on the maximum safe volume of culture to be consumed in 24 hours).  You might ask why I chose to subject myself to quite so much culture over one weekend: go on, you know you want to!

Well, as you asked so nicely, I can tell you in a single word (or perhaps a single word with a definite article): the Olympics.  Shortly, travelling into, and to an even greater extent around, London is going to become a significantly more challenging and unpleasant experience as it will be full of folk hoping to take part in an orgy of corporate branding with the odd sporting event thrown-in.  Since I suffer from claustrophobia in crowds (and even more so in small spaces filled with a crowd: yes London Underground, I’m talking to you), I am trying to squeeze in as much London-based culture before the hordes descend.  There is also the need to catch plays and exhibitions that will be over by the time it is safe to return.  So, I had my own little cultural Olympiad over the weekend.

Talking of the Olympics, I wonder if the current flourishing of Shakespeare on the television and in theatres across the land is relying on a probable misunderstanding: that the Stratford of the games and of the Bard are the same place?  I do wonder how many disappointed visitors will be unable to find Anne Hathaway’s cottage in E15?

Art-wise, on Saturday I took in the Master Drawings at the Courtauld and on Sunday “A taste of Impressionism” from Paris via the US to the Royal Academy.  I would thoroughly recommend both – some truly beautiful works.  The tragedy, as always, is that they are already fading from my useless visual memory – I shall have to return.  Luckily, I will be able to go back to both for nowt – thanks to my (paid) friendships with the National Art Fund and Royal Academy (so not entirely free, but sunk cost at least).  While at the RA, I was also able to see the contents of the John Madejski Fine Rooms.  I’ve known of the existence of these rooms for some time, but they had never been open on all my many previous visits – and I assumed they were like Brigadoon and only accessible once a century (so elusive are they, that I couldn’t even access the relevant part of the RA website when researching this post to check the spelling).  The rooms contained works by Academicians – and all held at least some interest, and a couple were real stunners (for me at least).

Theatrically, I saw Last of the Hausmanns at the National and Diplomacy at the Old Vic on Saturday – both plays well worth two-and-a-half hours of anyone’s time (I even managed to learn some relatively recent European history).  But, on Sunday I went to see Gatz which starts at 14:30 and doesn’t finish until 22:45.  They do offer you three intervals – two of 15 minutes and one of over an hour to have dinner – but it’s still a very long time to be folded up in a theatre seat.  The “play” is quite extraordinary and well-worth seeing:  The concept is an amazing idea for anyone to have come up with, and perhaps even more incredible that they managed to convince enough others to enable it to actually happen.  However, by the end I did wonder if my lower body would ever work again and most of my upper body was none too pleased with me either.  It also seemed that all that concentrated culture had turned my brain to mush: perhaps HMG should have a suggested limit for culture after all.  Miraculously, given my age, I do seem to have recovered pretty rapidly – or so I thought until I went to the cinema this afternoon.  After a couple of hours in the usually comfortable embrace of the Arts Cinema’s seating, I was having flashbacks to Sunday night.  I think I will have to start rationing my culture in future: perhaps limit myself to no more than 6 hours per weekend.  Either that or find a personal trainer who can prepare my body for the ordeal of sustaining the arts in this country: oddly, most seem more obsessed with helping me lose weight (and here’s me struggling to retain what little weight I have) than preparing me for the theatre or gallery.  This seems to be a rather serious gap in the market, if you ask me…

London calling

Not to be confused with  2LO (or, even 2MT) or the excellent album by the Clash, but the lure of the capital.

I have twice lived in London, once on each side of the river, on each occasion for around five years.  I found that after this period, the desire to escape became quite strong – though after a similar period was lured back once again.  I have now been away for seven years, but the last few weeks have reminded me of both the reasons to return and to remain in my current rural idyll.

Only yesterday, I found myself in Canary Wharf for much of the day.  I realise that the mining industry in this country is much diminished – a fact I find hard to regret given the appalling damage to human lives and landscapes that mining caused, though the needless continuation of the tribulations visited on our mining communities caused by the lack of planning (or caring) about what would happen after the end of the industry does provide a reason to lament.   Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the UK ever required so many yellow song-birds that such a large area of docklands real-estate could be justified for their importation – especially given Sir Humphrey Davy’s sterling work with the safety lamp.  With the end of the canary trade, the area now resembles some slightly dystopian architect’s view of the future – with most human life consigned to great subterranean malls or vast towers of glass and steel.  Over the years, I have been into a few of the towers – but I can’t say that any appeal as a place to spend much time (and not just because of my quite rational fear of heights).  I recall one that had windows coated so that however strongly the sunshine was splitting the paving stones outside, inside the day would always appear overcast.  Yesterday, I visited a building which had a largely open-ground floor, with walls clad in shining marble, and of a scale to put most medieval cathedrals to shame.  However, it contained little more than a rather nice lecture theatre/cinema, very modest reception desk and the lift shafts.  I presume this was designed to make the owner’s clients feel that they were in the presence of greatness – though it only made me feel that such clients were being massively over-charged to finance such opulence.  In fact, I tend to view the whole of Docklands as a rather eccentric theme park: with the DLR riding through the sky like a monorail, the whole place has somewhat the feel of the Epcot Center.

Whilst on the subject of towers of steel and glass, yesterday saw the official opening of the Shard.  I’ve tried hard to like this new addition to the London skyline, but so far its charms elude me: perhaps I have yet to see it from the right angle?  I also remember that it used to be incredibly windy as one tried to leave London Bridge station for Borough High Street by foot, and I suspect this new addition is only going to make matters worse.  I can only hope that they have provided anchors for the merry commuters to grasp as part of the development, or they will start to collect in untidy heaps against the glass walls of the new billionaire’s gin palace.

As a new-made country bumpkin, I don’t miss the crowds that are so much a part of the city: especially when you are pressed up against them in a packed, but static, tube train (a privilege for which one must pay very dearly these days).  I also miss my usual travel companions: the skylark and yellow-hammer and, at the moment, the great swathes of poppies scattered like blood from an ex-sanguinating giant (which metaphor suggest a new TV series, CSI: Jötunheimr a franchise yet to be tried by Jerry Bruckheimer and which finally brings together the popular genres of fantasy and forensic procedural).

On the plus side, living in London reduces the need to worry about the running times of theatrical, musical or comedic productions to ensure that one can still make it home.  Very few venues seem to consider that many people’s visit will involve a day trip using the railways and that the last train for many departs soon after 23:00 (and often before).  Even where a last train is achievable, on a school night it is nice to be back in one’s trundle bed rather earlier than 01:30.  When the reins of power are finally placed in my deserving (but so far cruelly overlooked) hands, events will only be allowed to run beyond 22:00 in exceptional circumstances.  This would allow everyone to retire to their straw palliasse by a sensible hour, and could well see a dramatic improvement in the sleep and productivity of the nation (or is this just my age talking?).  At the moment, a disproportionate volume of my theatre going exploits the matinée performance as this allows me to enjoy both the live theatre and an early night (it also helps me to feel comparatively young).  Still, despite these concerns I have a theatrical marathon lined up for the weekend – with the play on Sunday covering eight hours (though there is an interval for dinner), recalling my days as a fan of the operas of Wagner (a man who was as much a stranger to concision as am I).  I may not be at my best on Monday…

In contrast, last Saturday, I was reminded of the joys of London.  Arriving at King’s Cross, a short bus ride brought me to a beautiful Victorian pub, in a quiet back-street area of Camden, with a fine selection of well kept ales (the Price Albert in Royal College Street).  Sitting with a pint in the small, peaceful beer garden in the sunshine made me feel that London-life could be really quite acceptable.

I was then able to stroll along the banks of the Grand Union canal almost all the way to the Roundhouse for my afternoon’s entertainment.  Without the need to commute, and keeping away from the busier streets and tourist traps (which always seem to have caught a large haul of their prey, despite the apparent absence of cheese), living in the city looked surprisingly attractive again…

Addiction

I like to imagine that I am lacking something, the imagination perhaps, to form a proper addiction.  After coming to it late, I did wonder if I was addicted to alcohol as I used to consume it on a relatively frequent basis.  However, a few years back I realised that I had inadvertently gone eight weeks without touching the demon drink, which I think rather precludes it being an addiction.

I have recently been somewhat addicted to the television series Being Human, and in particular its recent, triumphant fourth series.  However, I think this can probably be fairly readily explained by my strong association with the character of Hal.  I may not be a 500+ year old vampire with OCD (though some days I do wonder), but we do share a worrying number of other quirks and, in my book, any character that refuses to countenance living anywhere unless if can offer carpets, central heating and Radio 4 can’t be all bad.  I did worry about his listening to You and Yours to keep his blood lust in check: I think it would probably drive me to kill quite quickly but then I quite enjoy Quote, Unquote, so no-one’s perfect.

Still, I think we can put this down as a passing fancy – and there won’t be a new “fix” available until 2013 – so I don’t think readers need fear for any further impairment of my fragile sanity from that direction.

As the avid reader will be aware (assuming their avidity has not caused permanent psychological damage), I started going to the theatre de temps en temps last summer.  I started my theatre-going “career” at the Oxford Playhouse when at university and then used to go regularly to a variety of theatres for much of the 90s, but, like a careless monk, lost the habit over the first decade of this shiny, new millenium.

My return to theatre-going started well enough – managing five plays in 2011 spread across seven months.  I thought I was in control…  However, in 2012 I fear the habit is spiralling out of control.  I have been to six plays already this year, and have another eight booked before the end of July.  I tried to convince myself that I was introducing competitive theatre going as a sport: well, we need to find some way to fund the arts in these difficult times and men seem willing to compete in pretty much any sphere, so why not the artistic one?  Unfortunately, my recent actions suggest a darker explanation…

I went to the mis-named Donmar Warehouse, it used to be a brewery (perhaps calling it a warehouse avoids creating unwanted organisational pressure?), on Easter Saturday (when we celebrate Jesus having a well-deserved rest away from the limelight) to see The Recruiting Officer.  This was great fun, and the Donmar is a lovely venue – though legroom in the circle was very limited, but this can be forgiven as the tickets are astonishingly cheap (as Treasurer of an arts charity, I can only marvel as to how they make ends meet).  The cheapness of the tickets may also explain how hard they are to obtain, though I did manage to snaffle the last seat for the entire run of The Physicists in July while I was there (occasionally, being single is a boon!).

My next smell of the greasepaint was not to be for 17 days and I found that I was starting to get twitchy.  Had I not been laid low by a serious bout of man ‘flu (or the common cold, as I believe it is known to the lay reader), I might have felt forced to fill the gap by booking something theatrical.  Matters are growing worse, after the excellent Travelling Light on Tuesday, I found I was needing another “fix” by Thursday.  I’m sorry to say that yesterday evening I gave into the cravings, and will be off to the Royal Court Theatre on Tuesday to see Love, Love, Love.

Can one obtain a theatre “patch” that I could wear to help me master these cravings?  Is there a 12 step programme I could join?  (I’ve covered step 1, as with this post I am admitting that I have a problem!)  Or maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through and I’ll grow out of it?

I fear this blog my have given the impression that all my theatrical dollars are being spent in the capital, and that I am failing to support my local proscenium arch – so let me put your minds to rest on that count.  Earlier in the year, I enjoyed a  splendid production of Anne Boleyn at the Cambridge Arts Theatre which was surprisingly funny (especially given the fate of the eponymous heroine) and has made me rather more sympathetic towards both Ms B and James (V)I.  I also have a couple more trips planned in May – however, I do wonder if I am too plebeian to be a member of the CAT audience.  The backs of the tickets are promoting the benefits of Kleinwort Benson Wealth Management – which suggests that they are aiming at a much richer clientele or at least one that isn’t blowing all its free cash on theatre tickets!  Ah well, I’m used to going where I’m not really wanted: I’ll just dress-up a bit and hope they don’t ask for a bank statement…

National anthem

My new life as a theatre goer is proceeding apace – of which perhaps more in a later post (if the idea ever manages to jump across the band-gap from draft to post) – but I do seem to have fallen in love with the National Theatre.  I’m even starting to develop a fondness for its neo-brutalist exterior architecture – but that may only be a consequence of association or familiarity.

Anyway, once past the concrete exterior the interior is a joy.  Both the Olivier and the Lyttleton (named for some relation of Humph’s I believe) are excellent places to watch a play: comfy seats with plenty of legroom which all have an excellent view of the stage.  I’ll be able to comment on the Cottesloe on the basis of first-hand (and leg) experience in June.

Each time I have been, there has been free, live music on offer to entertain those that arrive early – and there always seems to be a free seat in the extensive foyer space to sit down and take the weight off my ageing limbs (why do my limbs always feel older in London than in South Cambs?).  They always seem to have an exhibition of interesting photographs as well – so stimulation for both the eyes and ears while waiting for the main show to start.

Regular readers will be unsurprised that my first ever visit to the National, in the dying days of 2011, was not to see the followers of Thespis but to eat.  The complex has a decent restaurant and the tapas-style cafe is rather nice too – with views out across the Thames.  Even more importantly, as I have subsequently learned, it has quite the finest interval offerings of any performance space I have yet attended.  Wonderful interval cakes and blackberry frozen yoghurt – and with their efficient service, you can manage to fit the consumption of both into the break in the dramatic action (well, you may struggle but I can do it comfortably).

However, it would seem that food can act as a gateway drug to the theatre – a fact, other arts institutions might like to consider (assuming that I am typical of the potential theatre going public, which might be a challenging assumption to justify in the face of even mild cross-examination).  In 2012, I have been to four NT productions (so far) – 3 at the NT, and one at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London’s glittering west end (may not contain actual glitter).  This has taught me that if you do visit the West End, you may enjoy more classical and roccoco architecture but they do charge you extra for the privilege (or possibly, the maintenance) and the aircon is nothing like as effective.

So far my theatre has been rather skewed towards comedy – albeit classics from yesterday and today: The Comedy of Errors (by one W Shakespeare), She Stoops to Conquer (by Oliver Goldsmith – and nothing to do with the fruit of the horse chestnut) and One Man Two Guvnors (originally by Goldoni, but really the work of Richard Bean as I’m fairly sure Signor Goldoni never visited Brighton in the 1960s), all of which have been a joy and actually funny (not something you can take for granted) – but this is not to last.  To support my OU coursework (well, that’s the excuse I’m using), I will be seeing Antigone by Sophocles in June and my limited classical education suggests that if Sophocles was once famed for his light-hearted comedies then posterity has not preserved them for me to enjoy (but you never know what Tony Robinson may dig up – it can’t all be arrow heads and pottery sherds).  A BBC4 documentary I saw earlier in the week also suggested that Timon of Athens may not have an entirely happy ending – though might be quite topical.

However, last night I saw a new play entitled Travelling Light penned (or, more likely, word processed) by Nicholas Wright.  As with some of my recent cinematic viewing, this covered the early days of movies – but for my money (and it was my money, no-one is yet paying me to visit either the cinema or the theatre, more’s the pity) it was worth ten of the much lauded film, The Artist.  The play was lovely, warm, funny, moving at times and leads you to care about the protagonists.  Better yet, I couldn’t predict the ending (and most of the plot after the first reel (scene?).  In fact, I found myself caring rather too much about the “hero”, and spent much of last night fretting about Motl – a rather pointless (and tiring) exercise as he is a fictional character and even if real would now be more than 130 years old (so unlikely to gain any benefit from my concern).

Mr Collins does suggest that an anthem should be sung, and I do realise that this paean to the NT has been written in prose.  However, readers should not view this as a barrier when the phrase to “sing the ‘phone book” has made it into the language: a feat apparently performed by Celine Dion back in 2002 (and to greater critical acclaim than her work on the Titanic).  I feel this post makes for much more promising material for the sopranos and tenors among you than any of BT’s printed output, so feel free to let rip!

The Great Fire of Sawston

Evidence over the last 24 hours has once again demonstrated that I would make a very poor witness – unless my feet committed the crime (and they are generally pretty law abiding, so far as I know).

Yesterday evening I went to the theatre (again! What am I like?) in darkest W11 (and not the WW1 seaplane of that name).  ‘Twas a bit of a challenge reaching London as, for the second of three attempted journeys to the capital by our hero in the last month, the overhead lines were down in the vicinity of Sawbridgeworth (I’m still unsure why that particular Hertfordshire town is so inimical to the survival of catenary power lines).  Foolishly, after the departure of Hurricane Katia, I had failed to check that the power was still on – and so arrived at the station en vélo to discover a distinct dearth of trains.  I cycled back home to discover, from the NXEA website, that trains were about to re-start, so pedalled back to the station again (this rail travel certainly keeps you fit!).  A train did, indeed, arrive but the driver was very unsure how far south he would be able to go – and initially only promised Audley End.  However, fortune favours the brave and we did in fact make it all the way – if a little slower than timetabled.

The play, “Wittenberg”, at the Gate Theatre was very good – and my second play of the summer to include Dr Faustus (though no-one has suggested that last night’s playwright had penned any of the works usually attributed to Shakespeare: possibly as he is still in his 40s).  The Gate is slightly basic as a theatre – and so no ice cream (or anything else) on offer in the interval and whilst it is directly above a good pub, the pub was closed for refurbishment (a chap could start to think that it’s not his day!).  A tarte au citron flavoured yoghurt from M&S made a somewhat acceptable substitute – and its 225 calories ensured that my blood-sugar levels did not fall dangerously low during the second half (or should that be act?).

NXEA did mange to return me home – through the badlands of Sawbridgeworth – with only a relatively mild delay so I could collect my bicycle and return home.  I did notice that an area of the road outside the police station and another a little beyond my house were rather wet – though it didn’t seem to have rained elsewhere – but thought nothing of it and, after parking my trusty steed, went to bed (oddly, that mention of steed does make me realise that the bowler hat would make a rather fine choice of millinery for the stylish cyclist).

This morning I wandered about the house as usual, nipped into the garden to gather some herbs, and later passed through the garden again to un-park my bike ready to go into town.  My errands completed, I returned home some hours later – and the mystery of the wet patches of road was explained to me by a neighbour.

Last night as I was travelling home, my neighbour noticed a dim orange glow in one of the gardens that lie behind the extensive parklands that gird Fish Towers.  This was originally thought to be a garden lantern, but luckily she noticed that it had waxed somewhat brighter a little later in the evening.  This led to the discovery that the glow came from a large fir tree that was burning with some vigour – and within a very few minutes had transformed into the arboreal equivalent of a towering inferno.  You may think that I exaggerate, but the Fire Brigade (called in from Cambridge) could see it from several miles away as they raced towards Sawston in a bid to save the village from destruction (OK, maybe I am over-egging the risk to the village a tad).  It could not be determined in which garden the tree resided, and so the fire brigade climbed over my neighbour’s back fence with their hoses – hence one area of wet road, and the police station is the nearest hydrant which explains the other.  It would seem that I had missed the departing fire engine by only seconds as I regained my home.  Still, the excitement did help to put train trouble, pub closure and lack of an ice-cream in perspective – with hind-sight (nothing to do with a deer, a female deer: apparently), I chose a jolly good evening to be away from home.

How I failed to notice the massive, charred and blackened skeleton of the tree on the many occasions I looked in its direction during the morning is somewhat of a mystery to me (I can just about be excused last night as it was dark).  I have only recently visited an optician and my prescription is fully up-to-date – so I can only conclude that my powers of observation are virtually nil.  As a result, I would strongly recommend that no-one ever tries to call me as an eye-witness or invite me to join their team in a competitive match of Kim’s Game (not yet, so far as I know, an Olympic sport – but surely it can only be a matter of time).

I do wonder if this was a message from on high – He does have form with burning vegetation as a method of communication.  Just to be on the safe side, I am going to make a determined effort to pay slightly more attention to my surroundings in future – and will try to tear my eyes away from my feet (gorgeous though they may be), though this could lead to an increased trip hazard, every once in a while.

For any doubters, I shall try and obtain a photo of the conflagration and add it to this post…

Game old bird!

Listening to 6Music, I just heard “Queen gets 3rd in Derby” as a news headline.  Not bad for a woman in her eighties!  Particularly impressive when you consider the rest of the competitors were on horseback.

Or perhaps she was taking part in a look-a-like competition in the East Midlands?  If so, I wonder who she came as?  Disappointing result if she came as herself…

Later in the same bulletin, I heard someone being interviewed say that there were anti-aircraft batteries in the theatre.  Sadly, I didn’t catch which theatre (I should probably be paying more attention) – I hope it’s not the Globe as they will distract from the performance and certainly don’t fit with the Elizabethan vibe for which the Globe seems to be aiming (though I suppose they could be fired without damaging the roof).  I do wonder if I should have allowed that last sentence (prior to its parenthetic extension) to end with “for”, but old habits die hard and at least, with the construction I chose, Fowler will have been appeased.