Monday, April 27, 2009

Two-Faced Mayfair

Mayfair reminds me of Boppard-am-Rhine, where I went with a colleague on a school trip to in the seventies. By day it was all Lorelei song and oompah bands echoing from pleasure boats as they steered past the famous rock ,or outdoor cafes and fairy-tale wooden chairs with heart-shaped holes. But we spent the hours of darkness peering into cellars guarded by large men in turbans, looking for our teenage charges and wondering how we'd explain their loss to the headmistress when we got back to Camberwell

In a similar fashion, daytime Mayfair's all posh shops and innocent facades, nightingales in Berkeley Square and art gallery types strolling about. At night, when those Hell's Kitchen- style flames are lit outside the exclusive nightclubs, it seems quite sleazy.

I had the chance to observe this when Joanna, who's almost a fully trained Westmster Guide now,treated her friends once more to a walk in parts we don't normally reach. It started in daylight at Burlington House, in front of Sir Joshua Reynold's statue, where art lovers were enjoying the RA's late night opening and ended at Shepherd's Market, with candle-lit diners under heating posts calling for more Champagne . The pubs, of which there were four, had no shortage of rowdy customers.

In between, Joanna's walk took in all the best buildings, well laced with anecdotes, like Brown's Hotel where Somerset Maugham once stayed and reputedly said 'I've always been interested in people but I've never liked them'. With afternoon tea priced at £35 I don't blame him, although I expect it was cheaper then. Her back-street meandering took in not only Berkeley Square, and the oldest Poplar trees in London, but the pretty Farm Street Garden with its beautiful 'Church of the Immaculate Conception'. It has the sort of facade you see only on cathedrals, as a rule.

It hadn't occurred to me there'd been an actual May Fair for which the district was named, but apparently it had been an annual event unto it was closed in 1708 because of complaints by the neighbours and the bad influence on the young people of the time. Considering what I learned of eighteenth century morals on Joanna's previous walk they must have been going some to lower the tone.

For more information on Westminster walks:

The London Marathon

I had to laugh at 'The Archers' attempt to recreate the start of the London Marathon. It's true that an announcer told participants to go to their correct zones before the start. But to marshal 10,000 participants on a large park, with friends and well-wishers shouting above the noisy helicopters you need better amplification than one last used at the Ambridge Flower and Produce show.

The real thing sounded like the main stage at Glastonbury.

It's comical, too, when the BBC uses a member of the existing cast with a lightly disguised voice when the plots call for a one-off extra character. Considering the £100 licence free , you'd think they could pay an actor for once. They make enough savings, after all, by mentioning characters never actually heard from week after week.

The real announcer's Geordie accent carried round the park and probably half across Blackheath. At I thought at first they'd got Ant or Dec, but he announced at one point he wasn't and that he wasn't Gazza either.

His job, apart from chivvying the runners to their zones, was to keep up a stream of banter as the runners massed slowly towards the park gates and the start line, which took about about twenty minutes for some, and to reassure them their ankle chips wouldn't activate before they crossed the line.They must be sure to wave at the Mayor 'wearing his bling' on the podium with his lady wife. That's where the cameras were positioned.

I'd walked around beforehand watching the runners doing stretching and limbering up, smelling the tang of liniment and asking could I take photos. As I pointed the camera towards a young man in a Batman costume his friend encouraged him to move about: 'You could be famous on YouTube, man'. So I switched to 'video', unfortunately, as you'll see, only towards the end of his display.

I heard the starting gun, but didn't see the serious contenders out on the heath. Instead I photographed the parade of people running for hundred of charities. Many were dressed as super heroes or animals, including a plastic rhino, and there was even a woman on stilts. The mood was cheerful but nervous, maybe because the jovial commentator kept reminding them they had 26.5 miles to go.

I'd got there by walking over the heath, but decided to take th DLR back to Lewisham. The Cutty Sark DLR station was completely cut off by the stream of runners, but it's only a ten minute walk down to the other one. I couldn't believe the scene.

I was going the other way, but the huge crowds wanting to travel to central London found they had to queue at the DLR ticket machines, or take their chances with the replacement buses, because Greenwich station was closed for weekend engineering works. I'd have thought the Mayor could have laid on proper transport arrangements for such a big event.

We don't know how the The Archers got back to Ambridge but I hope it wasn't via central London.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stop MessingAbout

My earliest memory of radio is of my ear pressed painfully to the metal grille of my auntie's Rediffusion set, with the sound turned down. My mother caught up with the gossip while I listened to the Sunday programmes: one with record requests called 'Two-way Family Favourites', a sitcom starring a ventriloquist's dummy titled 'Educating Archie', then 'The (awful)Billy Cotton Band Show', and finally 'Life with the Lyons', a US sitcom with a wise-cracking comedian in the lead.

Later, I liked 'Take it From Here' with blustery Jimmy Edwards chaperoning his gormless son 'Ron', and finacee, 'Eth' played by June Whitfield. Catch phrases and double entendres about summed up the appeal. My favourite though, perhaps atypical, was 'Hancock's Half Hour' , with silly-voiced Kenneth Williams. His nasal, wheedling 'Good Evening' was a precursor to the funniest bits, as far as I was concerned. His speciality seemed to be playing disdainful officials or offended librarians suddenly collapsing into the camp-cockney catch-phrase: 'Ere, stop messing about' .

No wonder I like the 'Carry On' films - Williams looking down, literally, on a cast of stereotypes including Charles Hawtrey as a sparrow-chested wimp and Kenneth Connor's snivelling coward. Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor provide the excuse for smutty innuedoes. The double-entendres come just as thick and fast, the jokes with time-honoured targets, but William's voice is a joy, either staccato or sliding through several octaves like some infinitely flexible stringed instrument, equally suited to playing gravelly uppercrusters, or self-important shop-assistants.

His complex real-life character came out in his fascinating diaries, published in 1994.

Robin Sebastian, at the Leicester Square Theatre, caught Wiliams's voice, if not quite his sharp-elbowed persona. Billed as a 'trip down memory lane' the show was staged as BBC studio programme, a row of chairs behind four microphones and the 'sound' man in the corner. There were even 'applause' signs which lit up at appropriate moments.

Rooted in Music Hall, like much early radio show, a series of sketches with titles like: 'A Chat and a Tune with Florence Mc Twiddlemore' or 'The Kingston, Surbiton, Wimbledon and District Line Trio sing 'The Old Alhambra Theatre' complete with gestures' were performed by four actors stepping up to the mikes in relays. Jokes about randly old men and soldiers abounded, reminding me of the male-oriented world of the forties and fifties. The female character, was identified as Joan Sims and superbly played by Emma Atkins in a blonde wig, looking and sounding like a young Barbara Windsor. The suave announcer Hugh Paddick, played by Nigel Harrison was a reminder of how little the BBC has changed.

The tiny front of the Leicester Square theatre is located right next door to the Prince Charles Cinema, and has a good wide auditorium, with bar counters conveniently placed inside the audiorium itself.

As 'an evening of nostagia' it worked for me, and if you like that kind of thing it's very funny. I do like it, and an added extra bonus was the absence of a sore ear.

Kenneth Williams Diaries:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Little Javanese

This one's defininitely for those who like their short stories with a literary flavour. Not surprisingly, the author's previous published works were poetry collections.

I was a bit sceptical when asked to review this slim volume of five, each story set in a different country, especially as the point of view is resolutely male. However, I was swept along by the strong voice and the authentic settings . The blurb says they are 'redolent of Maughan (sic) and Hemingway'; for me they they recall DH Lawrence's intensity and sense of 'otherness' , whether of place or state of mind.

Tania Hershman, herself an award-winning writer of short fiction, runs a website called 'The Short Review' which, as the name suggests, specialises in reveiwing short story collections. My review is here:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Escape to Paradise

So there I was in the garden of delights: 'Grant & Cutler', off Regent Street. Now this is what I call a bookshop –stuffed with foreign language and literature as well as a fantastic collection of ‘World DVDs’.

I’m too weak willed for browsing there, so I don’t go very often, but I was desperate. I recently joined an Italian conversation group and my attempts to speak had met with sniggers. ‘She’s talking Spanish’, I heard someone whisper.

I only needed an oral ‘brush-up’, as I could read a book in Italian and understood most of what was being said. I did three years part-time at Goldsmiths a while back.

A little research and telephone call pointed to Grant &Cutlers. If I kept my head and practised self-discipline I’d be safe. Besides, the CDs cost £50, which was shocking enough . It was an advanced ‘audio only’ course, devised by a famous teacher called Michel Thomas. No books required.

I’ve been fascinated by foreign culture as long as I can remember. When I was thirteen my father shouted when he found out about my Japanese pen-friend. It wasn’t hard to spot the airmail envelope among the bills, not to mention a small box of carved figures. My parents had shown indifference to letters from France, but poor Akio’s photo was consigned to the back of the door of the outside loo. My father fumed about my ‘fraternising’, after he’d risked his life, etc. The correspondence ended, although I later had a boyfriend whose father was German.

Being born at the wrong end of the English class system probably gave me a positive attitude towards all things foreign, especially as it gradually dawned on me that revolution wasn’t on the cards. Whatever the reason, I remain fascinated by other ways of doing things. It was a kind of epiphany, the first time I saw a French film. A lot of people take to drink, I notice, but speaking foreign languages, eating foreign food, is my way for of pretending I’m not English.

It’s not so rare as you might think. Although most of my friends are foreigners, one, who’s definitely English, is convinced she has Chinese ancestry.

I managed to skirt round ‘end bins’ of discounted books, rows of audio tapes and carousels of DVDs. The Italian section has three parts, all with bookcase so large they require a kick-step to reach the top shelf – dictionaries, language courses and literature. I admit to looking at Korean language books, and fingering a Balzac recording, but I managed to leave with only the discs I came for. Mmm... if my will-power is that good, maybe I can risk another trip to Paradise.

Grant & Cutler

Michel Thomas Italian Course :

Friday, April 17, 2009

Colourful Pair

You have to hand it to these two, spotted on the way to the station yesterday. I mean the white-haired pair, not the front-runners.

They looked more like mountaineers than pensioners, and certainly weren't going to let age get in the way of making a sartorial statement.

They turned out to be Chinese!

For: 'Growing old together, hand in hand' , substitute: 'Celebrating Longevity with a Freedom Pass'.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Same Difference

'Anyone want the Anita Brookner? Don’t all shout at once.’

My audience of three were less than ecstatic. One glanced momentarily from a Colin Forbes, one cleared her throat and flipped the pages of ‘Jamaica Inn’, the third laid aside ‘Great Expectations’ to reach for a glass of water. Much as I’d expected.

For me, though, she's the perfect holiday read.

Contents include a modest heroine of private means and scholarly/artistic leanings, a more wordly, flightier friend, a tepid romance, ailing relations, and plenty of long walks. Usually it's set in London with side trips abroad - France as a rule.

Her Booker Prize-winning 'Hotel du Lac' had rather too much abroad in it, in my opinion, also rather more plot than the others. The film was good, with Anna Massey as the heroine and Denholm Eliott as the male let-down, all very misty and miserable.

In 'Leaving Home' Emma Roberts, in her late twenties lives with her widowed mother in the familiar Brookner ambience: a sombre West London flat not too far from Harrods.

When Emma, the perpetual student, is 27 and shows no signs of getting married or a job, her uncle suggests she gives up researching garden design and stay home to tend her mother. Emma feels a sudden urge to research in a Parisian library, an excuse to break loose. We’re told quite early on her studies are a metaphor:

‘I have tried to live my life according to the classical idea, that of order and control and self-mastery. That was the principle that imposed itself on the unruliness of nature in the shape of paths, parterres, rigorous right angles. Now I saw that such symmetry was only temporary, and that at some point nature would resume the upper hand.'

She’s glimpsed a semi-naked Adonis, in the shape of her elderly suitor's sleeping son. What happens next is nothing much, because it's not that kind of book. It's not one to be read in snatches on London trains and buses, but to savour, on a Cornish terrace overlooking the sea.

When I looked into the Colin Forbes someone was chopping someone up . I imagine 'Jamaica Inn' is like 'Rebecca' , very silly, only with smugglers. 'Great Expectations I know is full of unlikely characters in unlikely settings because I've had the funny bits read aloud so often. R, like me, wants something predictable for holiday reading . Unfortunately Dickens can't carry on churning out books.

I once saw Anita Brookner walking stiffly in a turquoise suit, auburn hair in a French pleat, near Charing Cross station. She looked as if she'd last for years, although she was born in 1928.

It's just as well nobody else wants to read the book, because I got it from the library. I'd better swap it for something more lively now I'm back: something to read in snatches.

John Grace's funny 'Digested Read' of Brookner's most recent novel:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Horses for Courses

The gent I picked up in Bath was useless when it came to ' catching a wave'.

Besides, what with all those Cornish pasties, it's as well I returned to London before my surfboard sank under me.

If these guys were restricted to the beach, what chance did I have?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Seven Go Off to Cornwall

'Isn't Porth rather a long way to go for four days?'

'Not if you like driving , Mum. Besides, it's only 60 miles off the M4'

Son D has booked a converted barn that sleeps seven.

He's more or less right in terms of mileage but I remember from last time that Cornwall has all these winding lanes and no proper signage, so what looks OK on the map ends up taking ages. How easy can it be to spot Gusti Veor, or St Columb Minor ? Not to mention Tumuli.

Where we're headed isn't even in Porth itself. It makes sense, I suppose, that a barn would be out in the countryside

So we're setting off Thursday morning, R and I , with daughter C and former husband J (don't ask) in the back seat and we'll be over-nighting at a Travelodge in Bath. D's driving the fractious teenagers all the way down there on Friday. Good luck to him, is what I say.

'Best bring a torch', is his parting shot. 'The pub's a mile away across the fields.'

Monday, April 06, 2009

Not for the Squeamish

So I see Val McDermid is to appear with other celebrity guests in a series of TV programmes about Bridge. Tony Hill’s psychological profile of a Bridge club killer could make chilling reading, a worthy addition to McDermid’s oeuvre of grisly crime thrillers.

I remember the first time I sat down to play Bridge, at County Hall c.1973. It promised a cheap and harmless evening’s entertainment.

My seat was directly opposite the window, so I was half-blinded by light from a low sun bouncing off the Thames. By some stroke of misfortune I was declarer, and fumbled across the table towards the dummy hand.

‘You touch the card, you play the card!’ a voice shouted into my left ear. It was my introduction to the cut-throat world of competitive Bridge.

Since then I’ve witness some vicious altercations and even fisticuffs. Bridge history includes a case of a woman who shot her partner for poor play. That was in America, but it’s definitely not a game that brings out the best in people. In fact, I’ve included a Bridge group in my novel-in-progress, called ‘Murder on Course’.

I expect the TV series will point up the enjoyable aspects of the game and the players will be on their best behaviour for the camera. Just so long as viewers don’t come away with the idea that club play is all nicely-nicely. On the contrary, it’s not for the squeamish and McDermid can’t fail to be inspired - I know I was.

Bridge on TV:

Friday, April 03, 2009

Baroque 1620-1800: The Age of Magnificence

As a child I was enchanted by the theatrical Roman Catholic churches in my home town of Preston, which echoed Belfast in its religious rivalry. I loved the gloomy incense-heavy spaces and hyper-real statues. One church, called English Martyrs, had a giant wooden Christ on a cross in the foyer whose feet, dripping with painted blood, could be kissed by the pious as they entered.

The ostentatious churches of Italy, France and Spain were lavishly funded by the state, as well as the poor. The theory was that sensory appeal would induce a mood of spirituality. C of E churches relied more on sermons and hymns, although as my local, Emanuel, was quite ‘high’ there was a fair amount of stained glass and embroidered hassocks.

This huge exhibition shows how the Baroque style spread out from Italy and France in the mid-seventeenth century, to the rest of the world. There's a thin dividing line between the flamboyant and the downright grotesque and it’s often overstepped.

So-called ‘sun king’ Louis X1V is at the secular centre of the show at the V&A. There's a big portrait of him in his finery, and a film of the Palace of Versailles.

The exhibition divides into genres: furniture and decorative artefacts, including some weirdly fantastic cabinets inlaid with pietra dura, marble and gilt decoration; architecture on projected slides ; paintings and models of opera, theatre and public celebrations; church decoration and ritual artefacts. Overhearing the video soundtrack of a mass being celebrated at the London Oratory, R mistook the mass bell for the signal to vacate the museum. I reminded him it was a Friday late session.

Paintings include a fine Rubens, with curly drapery trailing from plump angels, but my favourite is Tiepolo’s 'The Triumph of the Immaculate Conception’ which depicts the Virgin Mary in the clouds, surrounded by cherubs, her foot on a globe and a serpent with an apple in its mouth. The colours are ethereal - a rosy beige for the sky, blue and white for the virgin's cloak contrasting with the dark scaly dragon.The smoothly blended brushwork recalls John Singer Sargent, who has a couple of portraits in the Van Dyck exhibition at the Tate Britain.

There are some fascinating small 'curios' made from rare materials: an amber coffee-pot, a pair of ivory-handled pistols, and a cup made from an octrich egg. Among the bigger items are a massive silver chandelier and a font enclosed in carved screens.

It all made me want to rush off to Italy – or to Preston.

Baroque Exhibition at the V&A:

Regulating the Service

I don't know who dreams up these bus announcements, but they're surely having a laugh. The explanation for this morning's delay deserved a prize: 'This bus is being held here briefly to help regulate the service'

The incongruous female voice sounded like the one I'd just heard on Radio 4, saying 'Good Man' to some bloke called Sebastien. It just hiked up irritation levels.

Buses are more frequent nowdays and I love those shelters with signs that tell you how long before the next one arrives so you can take an interest in the countdown. It's good to have the stops announced in advance once you're on the bus, too, so you don't have to walk back to where you wanted to go.
It's a novelty to be given a reason for the delay, though. More often you're just told to get off. 'This bus terminates here', the driver shouts. 'There'll be another bus along in a few minutes.'

Regulating the speed at which drivers aim for the terminal is a good idea, especially if you're elderly, and daren't go upstairs in case you lose your grip as the driver whizzes round a corner. It's an improvement on buses travelling in pairs, picking up at alternate stops, with long gaps between.

I was on my way home from swimming, so wasn't worried when the 185 seemed not to move away from the stop. All around me, though, passengers were like meercats, straining to see if there was a bus following, so they could change and maybe get to work on time. I even got off myself, and then back on again when the doors started beeping.

So 'regulating the service', ie cancelling journeys mid-way or introducing false delays seems designed to keep commuter anxiety levels high, with passengers on the 'qui vive' in case they have to scramble at short notice.

I think they should do away with the 'Antiques Road Show' voices, though, and follow the DLR guards' example. The heavy irony the drivers manage to inject into their voices, as they as they intone the 'offical excuses' makes you feel, somehow, they're on your side.

I was quite pleased, too, on a DLR train, yesterday, when they announced the final destination station was closed. It was Bank!