Long Live the Queen and Women Everywhere!

Well the day none of us, at least I didn’t, think would ever come has indeed arrived. The Queen is dead. You all know the facts, longest reigning monarch in English history, 15 Prime Ministers, a calm constant in an increasingly complicated world. She is the only monarch most people, across the world, have ever known. Her face decorates tea towels and faux china cups around the globe.  

Only two days before her death I became her subject in a moving and thoughtful ceremony at Lambeth Town Hall. I was told that as a British citizen I am to be tolerant and respectful and allow others their freedoms and rights. When the people gathered at Buckingham Palace were interviewed by the media, shortly after the announcement, almost all mentioned the Queen’s charity, her kindness. We are certainly sorely lacking in those qualities, in general. Recently, my husband and I invited a young Ukrainian mother and her two little girls to live in the now vacant boys’ bedrooms. Although this arrangement does not violate any part of our lease (I won’t go into the boring details, our lawyers were on it, yes it came to that), our landlady went, as they say here, completely mental. Screaming down the phone at me that, and I quote, ‘these people take everything’, including, or according to this woman, especially, other peoples’ houses.  Only the day before I swore my allegiance to her, the Queen welcomed our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, to run the country. I am not a politics addict, so maybe the announcement passed me by, but I don’t remember taking people’s houses away was part of the new Conservative platform. While I have nothing but contempt for the landlady, I understand that fear of the future is a real thing. The Covid years have pushed so many families into food poverty and now we can add fuel poverty to the list. Plus, an overwhelmed health care system, a growing mental health crisis, much infrastructure that is well past its sell by date and rail and postal strikes looming. No wonder people are angry and afraid and suspicious of others.  I digress.

Where was I when I learned of the Queen’s death? Standing in Victoria Miro gallery in Hoxton, surrounded by people. I had only been there a few minutes, had only seen a few of the pieces, when the news popped up on my phone. My friend, Sara, and I stood stunned as everyone around us, oblivious to what had just been announced, carried on chattering and yapping. It was a long, strange, surreal moment. Eventually a Director appeared, shared the news, and announced that the show was closing immediately out of respect. As we left the building, the queue, full of what I call The Club Kids, in their fabulous outfits, had wound its way all down the street and around the corner. We tried to tell them that the show had closed and why, but no one believed us. As more venues closed and people spilled out onto the streets no one seemed overtly sad or emotional, just confused. It was in a similarly bewildered state that I made my own way home. For most of us this death will change nothing about our daily lives. Yes, eventually we will have some new looking money (but who uses cash anymore?) and a new cipher will appear on new post-boxes, but then who uses the post anymore? Admittedly, King Charles the third has an awkward ring to it, but we will get used to it, as we get used to just about everything we originally object to. Including, I am happy to report, the landlady, who gave up the fight just before the Queen’s funeral. Little girl laughter safe and well in my house. Again, I digress.

I joined the queue for the lying-in state. I felt I needed to be part of this history, and I was encouraged to do it by my friend Mini, a firm Royalist and an incredibly wise woman on the logistics front. I believe we waited the least amount of time anyone waited, that being 5 hours and 20 minutes. That alone made it worthwhile. We joined the queue on the Thursday morning, 10 minutes before 7 am, at London Bridge. It moved along at a steady pace until we reached the part of the embankment in front of Thomas’ Hospital. Everyone had somehow disappeared at that point and we could have run at a full sprint to Victoria Gardens. We chose a powerful walk instead and arrived, having at that point only waited 2 hours, thinking we were almost done. Ha. As everyone who did it will tell you, the real queue starts in Vic Gardens as you turn back on yourself again and again and again.  Like the longest rollercoaster queue ever. But a jolly queue. People, and when I say people I mean middle aged white women, as we made up 98% of the crowd, were laughing and chatting and sharing the fruit and chocolates they had brought along. The weather was lovely, London looked gorgeous, very pleasant morning. The security checkpoint was unbelievably efficient. I am not the first to suggest that airports could learn a thing from this detail. And then into Westminster Hall. It was beautiful and silent, and it was only then that I wished I had dressed a bit better. But then it had been cold and rainy when I left the house, and at 6 am I wasn’t that fussy, the woman in front of me had on gym kit, and no one was looking at me (except they were, as it was all live streamed and I got sent many screenshots of myself, alas).  We were held at the top of the stairs for quite a time, which meant we saw the impressive Changing of the Guard. I always have to remind myself that these same men who perform this ceremony are active soldiers. The discipline to do both astounds me. We were eventually invited to walk past the coffin, at a pace, and then suddenly, after all that time, re-emerged into the sunlight and chattering and laughing of crowds. Never mind the wait, the final 30 minutes were surreal in way that fixes in the memory.

But back to the monarchy. As the procession made its way from Scotland, there came disturbing reports of people being arrested and threatened with arrest for voicing anti-monarchy opinions within earshot of gathered crowds. In Parliament Square, a lawyer, with a busy Twitter account, held up a blank piece of paper, and was cautioned by the police.  These aren’t violent demonstrations, just lone citizens expressing personal convictions. Such over the top responses suggest a weak leader. I fear Charles will be a weak leader. He said himself in his first Kingly address that he has waited 50 years for this role, and I am afraid those 50 years have moved on and left him behind. But leadership will be the least of his problems. The most difficult thing for Charles will be to convince the younger generations that the monarchy is relevant. I know for every friend who reads the previous sentence and gasps at the horror of the sentiment, I have at least two friends who are thinking exactly the same, if they are giving any thought to the monarchy at all, and those are people in their middle years. The future belongs to the young.  The young feel passionately about things, not least what a post-colonial world should look like. Charles will need to find a way to make the youth believe that he has something positive to add to this conversation, no small task, not least because should he try he could simultaneously alienate the people who want to adore him most.

The past is under constant re-evaluation at the moment, and rightly so. Within days of the Queen’s death I visited the British Museum. I love the British Museum; I am a member. I have ‘done’ the 100 objects. I also know that much of what is there shouldn’t be there…and so I need to start saying goodbye to some of my favourites. There was a Book of Condelence available, in the Great Court. I could not resist the irony…. If anyone is confused about this paragraph, I suggest you google James Acaster, British Museum. It is piece of comic genius that explains the situation better than I ever could. The spoils of Empire become problematic when the Empire is revealed for what it was…

The Queen was able to avoid this conversation because she famously never shared an opinion on anything. The public, for the most part, were happy with that. As she aged, she became less a symbol of power and more the lovable, smiley grandmother. Charles in known for having opinions and no one considers him a cuddly grandfather. Nor will he be afforded the mantle of silence. Good luck to him.

So what have I taken away from the Queen’s death and the reaction to it? Women. I think about women. How can we continue to have a world that insists on the inferiority of women when some of the greatest of the greats are women ? When we consider England’s great monarchs Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II top the list. Women all. Yet for most women in the world today life is very, very, very hard, in both rich and poor countries. The United States of America has recently delivered its own shocking blow. The previously mentioned art opening was for Katy Hessel’s book launch, The History of Art (without men),  a long, long, long overdue reassessment of art history. At time of writing, protests are gathering speed across Iran and the world, as women are removing their hijabs and cutting their hair in anger over the death of Mahsa Amini and toward a government that insists the oppression of women to be ordained by God.  Will the rise of women finally topple this Islamist regime? We can but watch and wait. The times they are a changin’, as they always are. Ever thus. The only constant is change. May it be for the better. In particular for women. Rest in Peace Elizabeth, Rest in Peace Mahsa Amini. May you encourage the living to rise.

Freedom Day and Ely Cathedral…the masked months #8

Today is Freedom Day in England. No, I have no idea what that means either. Just another lurch toward something, I guess. But here we are 16 months later and what has changed, everything and nothing.  A recent visit to beautiful Ely Cathedral made this paradoxical point well.

Currently, in the nave of Ely Cathedral, just before the crossing above which the extraordinary lantern dazzles, hangs Luke Jerram’s GAIA, a replica of planet earth, using NASA imagery, revolving slowly. I was lucky enough to see this installation in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College back in September 2020. It was a majestic sight there, and while the Greenwich write up says it was meant to give viewers ‘a sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment,’ I only remember feeling awe, for the work itself, the work in that location and the artistic accomplishment. Nor do I remember the accompanying soundscape. Ely Cathedral did not allow such omissions. Entitled, Heaven and Earth – The World in Our Hands, the message is very clear: the earth is in trouble and it is our fault. Set against the surrounding pillars were toy animals and a pop-up book of Noah’s Ark, so tiny against the stone and the adjacent globe, rather like our feeble efforts thus far. The soundscape, of nature noises interspersed with media chatter brought home the fact that we do an awful lot of talking. Talk and talk and talk. Not so good on the action part. As I type, much of this fragile planet is either flooded or on fire.

Remember way back when, at the beginning of the pandemic, when we all stayed home and nobody went any distance and we noticed how loud the birds are and how beautiful spring is. The skies seemed clearer, pollution levels plummeted, the air was fresher, the animals took to the streets happy to fill the human void. We were optimistic that we had found a new way to live. The Greenwich installation highlighted the fact that so many of us were using nature as a way to cope with the stresses and insecurities of the pandemic, that we were appreciating the environment in ways we hadn’t before.

We were finding our own little gardens of Eden everywhere. A bit of heaven here on earth, not unlike the peeks at heaven that cathedrals hope to offer in their architecture, not least in the extraordinary beauty of Ely’s octagonal tower and lantern, with its starburst of colour and musical angels and Christ’s image gazing down from inside some rather mushroomy looking clouds. If we are capable of creating something like this (almost 700 years ago!) surely we can learn to clean up after ourselves a bit more. Sadly, these thoughts didn’t last long. Heaven on earth got quickly buried under even more plastic waste (the LFT kits alone!) and we resumed our careless habits with gusto.

Those memories of hopeful times are not the only Covid-era time capsule at the Cathedral. Upstairs in the Stained Glass Window Museum are a fantastic series of 8 stained glass panels by artist Rachel Mulligan based on the Tinker, Tailor nursery rhyme, with a pandemic twist. Very clever each one, they nonetheless weren’t immediately obvious in reference. It took me a few seconds to ‘get’ each one, yet in every single case what was being shown was incredibly relevant only a few months earlier. How fast our minds move on. The Tinker is banging a pot outside his shop (remember those Thursday nights for the NHS, no, not so much). The Tailor is furiously sewing PPE, while the Soldier is building a Nightingale Hospital, facilities that were, for the most part, left unused. The Sailor is hoisting the Quarantine flag. The difference between the Rich Man and the Poor Man, both clearly in a medical care setting is reflected in their PPE, rich with the full gear, poor with nothing at all. The Beggar Man is standing in a foodbank queue. Requests for this service went up as much as 700% in some councils during the pandemic, the label tells me. Shocking, for many reasons. The Thief, more light-heartedly, is stealing loo roll. Of these 8 vignettes, the only one that doesn’t seem a distant memory is the Foodbank queue…hmmm, does that suggest another area of inter-connectivity at which we are failing?

So what does all this mean? Nothing. We seem to be right back to where we were before the pandemic, which I suppose, if one is giving it the name ‘Freedom Day’ is a good thing. Except I don’t think we really believe that. Maybe the only thing we have learned from the last 16 months is that we don’t learn, and, putting the pandemic behind us now, we can continue to free ourselves from responsibility for the planet and each other.  Sigh, in the famous words of Bob Dylan, ‘how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?’ More than we ever thought possible.

Sarah Everard…the masked months #7

There was simply no way I was not going to go to the vigil for Sarah Everard. I needed to join with, to stand with, other women, in a public space, and spend a few minutes being quiet and sad. The abduction and murder of Sarah has rocked my neighbourhood , not least because it happened right here, on the same streets we live and walk. We have been passing the MISSING posters for a week, forwarding the same whatsapp messages, holding our collective breath and hoping against reason for a happy conclusion. Which did not come.

The peaceful, outdoor gathering was marred by the aggressive actions of authority and the resulting anger exposed itself immediately for what it was. A complete misunderstanding that for women there are scarier things than gathering in public. The anger of those on the other side, those who felt that strong police action was not just justified, but necessary, manifested itself in language that was all too familiar, lots of phrases starting with ‘should’, followed by either ‘have’s or ‘not have’s. We can all fill in those blanks…worn that skirt, been out at night, walked that way, stood together on the Common. To put it more directly, the message was: you should have stayed at home. And I think it is exactly that which rankled the women here in SW London the most. After a year of obedience, we had reached our limit. We wanted, just for a few moments, to acknowledge what had happened in our midst, to be together, in our strange, masked, distanced sort of way, to lay beautiful flowers where something of unimaginable ugliness took place. To recognize that what happened to Sarah Everard is an extreme example of the experience of violence women live with everywhere, every day. Which is precisely why the photos of the arrested girls, with their little bodies and big eyes, embodiments of the protested violence, are so horrific.

“What is to be done?” we cry out. As touching, and necessary as they are, vigils in themselves accomplish very little. My mother reminds me of how many vigils have taken place after shooting sprees in the US, and not a single thing has changed. Violence, of all kinds, seems embedded in our DNA.

I spent a few hours last week in an on-line discussion group looking at paintings, stunning 15th and 16th century masterpieces, of the Easter story. Perhaps for the first time I realized how truly, shockingly violent these images are. Of course, much of the Easter story is violent, but not all of it, and spiritually and theologically the violence is not point of Easter. Yet, it is what grabs most of our attention, and, for that reason, numbs us to it. I have always been a fan of the police procedural, this past year has been one long gulp of international crime drama, France, Belgium, Senegal, Iceland, Sweden, Brighton. I can’t get enough, and yet the often-shocking violence portrayed is almost always against women. And like the exquisitely rendered crucifixions that fill museums, the repetition of these storylines dulls our reaction. Until we are yanked out of our complacency by the reality of violence on our own doorstep. What happened to Sarah was a shocking crime, but one that is relatively unusual. And the ugly truth is that any truly preventative measures will only come with a complete overhaul of ourselves as a species and our fascination with violence. Is such a thing even possible? Certainly, Sarah’s death was caused by the actions of one, one assumes deranged, man. Yet, we as the group that makes up society, is not free from blame. We have created this world in which terrible, terrible things happen. Can it be fixed?

That is indeed the question. The suggestions put forward by the government are well meaning, more lights on the streets would be great, but ultimately ineffective, and certainly would have done nothing for Sarah. Perhaps the only seriously sensible suggested I’ve heard so far was put forth, on Instagram, by the kickboxer and gym owner (and abuse survivor), Natasha Mina @thisgirlcanfight. She asked that the government get serious about tackling pornography, in particular child and violent pornography, on the internet. The government has proven how good they are at monitoring behaviour, so a serious effort at eradicating the proliferation of these images, and the crimes that allow the images to be made in the first place, would be a good use of resources. And my guess, would be more effective in the long run than a few more lightbulbs. It won’t bring Sarah back, it probably won’t even stop the next assault from happening, but it is a tangible, substantial first step to making this world a little less shit.

I’ve returned several times to the Clapham Common bandstand, the centrepoint of the vigil. Huge expensively wrapped bouquets among handtied stems. But what really struck are the many small pots of bulbs, just beginning to open. Life amidst so much death. And I realized that was exactly what all these people standing separately, silently, together meant to me: life, sad, mournful, sorrowful life, but life nonetheless.  And in that life, hope.

The poet Salena Godden has “Hope is a group project” on her Instagram account, @salena.godden. Maybe that is the real reason we all came together on the Common, and continue to do so, because we need the group. The group to mourn, the group to hope, the group to lobby for change, the group to make something positive from all this grief.  I think of the words of John Dunne, written way back in 1624, reminding us ‘No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’ Life, for better or worse, is a group project. Let’s go for better.

searching for spectacle, sequins, solstice and stars (and bill bailey too)…the masked months #6

I restarted this blog at the beginning of Lockdown 2.0, in November. I thought with all the empty hours I would have time to write about lots of things…the flaw in this plan was quickly obvious. I had nothing to write because I had nothing to do. Now I know this could have been a time to concentrate on details, the quiet things in life. I recently saw a social media post praising all the people who had used these last many months to cement their yoga and meditation practices, ok, they probably didn’t use the word ‘cement’, but you know what I mean. People who had used the time to concentrate on the hushed moments, to savour the homebound opportunities. I did try. Novels, poetry, on-line lectures, feeble attempts at intellectual insights, television, cleaning, baking, but nothing lasted long. I could enjoy all these things, sure, but only in short doses. Never in sustained ones. I did learn something though, and what I learned is that I I don’t want hours of quiet reflection and mediation, I want the spectacular.

When we were released from Lockdown 2.0, at the beginning of December, I went to the National Gallery to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I bought her a book of gorgeous details of NG paintings. I had imagined we would spend our afternoon, book in hand, roaming the galleries, finding and swooning over these details. But, of course, we did no such thing. We were so excited to be out and seeing each other we couldn’t be bothered with details. We spent hours in the café, talking and talking and talking and being together. Eventually we blagged our way back into the galleries, past a guard who was taking the one-way system in the otherwise empty building very seriously, and spent time with our former Professor’s exhibition, Sin. We bubbled over with excitement at each picture as we had each spent on-line hours studying the exhibition and wanted to share what we had heard, what we had learned. We were so animated that the guard, not the same one, approached us, we feared to tell us off for being so over-excited, but instead he asked very politely if we were fashion students. We laughed even more, savouring the idea that our delight at being together in front of paintings had transformed us from women of certain ages into something so spectacular as fashion students.

The euphoria didn’t last. Within days of being out of lockdown I was back in. Youngest daughter tested positive, 10 day quarantine, making our planned Christmas in the US impossible. A few days later, London was put back in Tier 3 restrictions, further reducing Christmas plans, and then the final blow, the brand-new category Tier 4 thrust upon us, with less than 10 hours notice. Essentially back to our Spring lockdown life. In starker terms, Christmas has been cancelled. No one is going anywhere, seeing anyone. Things are very grim indeed.

Fortunately, and probably not coincidentally, the Tier 4 announcement was made just two hours before the Strictly Come Dancing Final. The incredibly popular ballroom dancing competition pairing 12 celebrities (in the loosest of meanings) with 12 professionals is a show to which, in the past, I have given only scant attention. But not this year. Suddenly these few, weekly hours of laughter, tears (in a good way), sweat, sequins and sparkles have become the highlight of my week. How could I not fall in love with JJ Chalmers, injured Royal Marine turned television presenter or earnest, 19 year old Maisie Smith off Eastenders? But the one I was really rooting for was comedian and musician Bill Bailey, at first because he was the only one I recognized. He was supposed to be the joke entry. Too old, too stiff, wasn’t going to take it seriously. Well ha, those nay-sayers were wrong as Bill and his beautiful partner Oti Mabuse won the competition and lifted that glorious Glitterball trophy in victory. 55 years old (as judge Shirley Ballas couldn’t resist gasping out in shock each week), bald with long hair (as another described him), clunky and slow to start (that changed drastically over the weeks), and ok, hand on heart probably not the most skilled out there, despite the astounding progress he had made, but he gave us something we all needed so badly. Spectacle. His tango to Metallica’s Enter Sandman and his popping and locking, dressed as a 1940s gangster, to Rapper’s Delight gave us those moments of wild-eyed, joyful, what-am-I-seeing?, grand gesture feeling we have lost this year. And oh, how we miss it! While ballroom dancing is certainly about details, that judge Craig Revel Horwood is forever droning on about ankles and arms and shoulders, it is also about spectacle, loud trumpets, air guitar, fedoras, sequins and big huge grand gesture. And the greatest gesture of all is that Bailey won.

In an effort to prolong the grand gesture, yesterday, December 21st the Winter Solstice, I watched a live stream of sunrise at Stonehenge. I don’t really like Stonehenge, much of the myth of the place comes from the Victorian imagination, and once you’ve taken your artsy/clever photo you’re ready to leave, in my (admittedly minority) opinion. But it was the Solstice, the point of the structure apparently, and I cannot deny that the setting is beautiful. Yesterday was, however, rainy and foggy. While these weather conditions do make the stones atmospheric, mysterious even, they shield the actual rising of the sun. There was no spectacular, illuminating moment, just a gentle shifting of light. But I stayed watching, not just because I didn’t have anything else to do, but because I knew that if suddenly I was able to be there in person, with other people, on site, I would have been, just for the spectacle of being there.

Winter Solstice wasn’t yesterday’s only potentially spectacular event, it was also that rare moment when Jupiter and Saturn are so close they appear as one magnificent star, often suggested as the Star of Bethlehem. Last seen 800 years ago, it is said to be a good omen. Unfortunately, those same sunrise blocking clouds blocked the Star of Bethlehem out as well. Well that sums up 2020 doesn’t it? All the things that would/should/could have been were/are blocked out.

I spent last night ‘attending’ the On Being Project’s Midwinter Gathering on (the now ubiquitous) Zoom. Three lovely, thoughtful people, saying lovely, thoughtful things in really soft and slow voices. There was no spectacle. Instead, a gently expressed sense that we will be living with these clouds for a long, long time, and a longing to not forget that the sun is still rising, the Star is still there, even if we can’t see it today. Maybe the meaning of the overcast sky metaphor is that it tells us something of the future, that something great is out there, we just can’t see it yet for the fog we are in. But it is still there. Ok, sure, but what does that mean for today? Tomorrow?

Well tomorrow we (the family, not the nation) are officially released from our youngest-child-tested-positive quarantine. And I intend to fling open my front door and create a spectacle. Well, as much spectacle as Tier 4 allows. Which means I will grab my picker and head across the road to the cemetery. (For those who don’t follow me on Instagram @mylondonpassion, since mid-November I have given myself the hobby, the mission of cleaning up the cemetery across the way. And I make up little anecdotes based on the items I find.) I am counting on lazy, selfish, disgusting Londoners to have left me lots and lots of rubbishy treasures, details of life with which, like the Victorians before me, to turn into spectacular stories, full of romance and intrigue. Yes, indeed, there is going to be starlight behind those clouds, even, if, at first glance, the light looks like a crisp packet, a Stella can, a torn parking ticket. Who knows, I might even find some sequins…

rosemary, that’s for remembrance…the masked months #5

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.— Hamlet

The very first post I wrote for this blog, way back in 2014, was about the poppy installation, and the crowds it drew, at the Tower of London. 888, 246 ceramic poppies to commemorate the British and Commonwealth lives lost in the First World War, 100 years after this so-called war to end all wars began. 6 years on and what a different world this is, not least because the gathering together in crowds to remember is not just not possible, it is illegal.

Today is November 11, and at 11:00 we will all stop and observe a two- minute silence. At least I think we will. It is hard to know what society at large is doing in these days, with everyone told to stay at home and away from each other. 3 days ago was Remembrance Sunday, an occasion the British take very seriously and do very well. Churches overflow, soldiers young and old march and wreaths are laid, poems are read and a single trumpet plays the haunting Last Post. Solemn crowds gather to take part in it all. A few moments of unity in a fractured world. But not this year.

I live across from a cemetery in which there are several war graves. One in particular can be seen from my neighbours’ bedroom window. He has become ‘their’ soldier and on Remembrance Sunday they clean and place flowers on his grave. Not this year. They fled London at the first lockdown and have not returned. With no services or ceremonies to attend, I took a long walk through the cemetery on Sunday, curious if any of the graves had been tended. They had not.

cof

In 2018, I visited an extraordinary art installation at Olympic Park, Shrouds of the Somme. Artist Rob Heard devoted 4 years, and bankrupted himself in the process, to sewing an individual shroud for each and every British and Commonwealth soldier killed and not recovered at the Somme. 72, 396 men lost, 19,240 on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). Each doll was only the size of a Barbie, but laid side by side, there seemed to be no end to them. Too many to fit in one photo. At the time, the sheer scale of it staggered me. It still staggers, yet in 2020, looking back at the photos, I feel something different, something I would never have thought only months ago: Look at them all, they aren’t alone.

Westminster Abbey was given special permission to hold a service today, with only 80 people, all masked, in attendance. I watched it on television and, while beautiful and moving, it felt all so very lonely. Remembering can be a deeply personal and often private act. Yet, this remembering, remembering for people most of us never knew, who died and continue to die, in the collective event that is war, seems to require, indeed deserves, a collective remembering. Even more so now when so many physical memorials have become problematic, the gathering of warm bodies seems more appropriate than cold stone.

These memorials we have insisted on erecting for centuries, do they really help us honour and remember? Sometimes, but mostly we just ignore them. They become part of the fabric of the landscape, no more distinguishable than the other stone and metal around them. I have been visiting English cathedrals recently, buildings that are filled with memorials and tombs and statues, mostly to people I have never heard of, whose deeds are either forgotten or, worse, are not worthy of being remembered. Occasionally, however, I find one that stops me in my tracks. In the east end of Canterbury Cathedral, a single candle and a fresh red rose sit on the floor as memorial to Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in the Cathedral in 1170. The simplicity is profoundly moving in a way an elaborately carved tomb or shrine could not be. It boasts nothing but its light, a light that is shared with all who look on it.

Not long ago I was introduced, through the Poetry Exchange podcast I have mentioned before, the Carol Ann Duffy poem, Last Post, which imagines what would be ‘if poetry could truly tell it backwards’, and allow ‘several million lives still possible’, what would be if, through verse, blood runs back into wounds and ‘and all those thousands dead /
are shaking dried mud from their hair / and queuing up for home.’ If only. With this poem and the Beckett memorial at Canterbury in mind I crossed the road, this morning. I spent time with these young men killed in the First World War. I tidied up their graves, lay a red rose and instead of a candle, a spring of rosemary at each. I said their names out loud, Frank, age 24, Harry, age 25, Percy, age 28. For just a few moments, together.

artemisia, i am…the masked months #4

Still waiting the official, final results of the US election, but certainly feeling better now than I did 36 hours ago. I was never optimistic enough to believe in the Biden landslide some were predicting, but neither did I expect to get up, after a rather restless and sleepless night, on Wednesday with the outcome still somewhat in the balance and that horrible man and his ilk baying for victory. I felt sick. And sad. And worried. It was also our last day before lockdown #2, so no time to be spent on what might be, no matter how frightening. First stop the boxing club, not least because exercise is an excellent mood changer, even better when that exercise involves punching things. 12 Rounds Boxing is club is across the way from Clapham Junction, between a bank and a chicken shop, up the blue staircase. Owned and run by women it trains boxers of both genders and offers non-contact fitness classes using the skills and discipline of boxing training. Techniques and combinations on the bag mixed with HIIT class favourites (planks, squat jumps, mountain climbers etc). I am a terrible boxer. My leg work is slow and awkward and my hands lack precision and speed. I rarely find any sense of rhythm. But what I don’t have in talent I make up for in enthusiasm. I absolutely love it. I smile the whole time, even through the burpees which I hate. By the end I am a puddle of my former self with smile intact. Rather like a sweatier version of the Cheshire Cat.  Yesterday I was positively transformed. The US was going to have to sort itself out, I, and my new mind set, had a date at the National Gallery.

The most popular woman in town at the moment, and the name of everyone’s lips, is hanging out at the National Gallery: Artemisia. Artemisia Gentileschi. Tickets are like gold dust. In what now looks like a stroke of genius, yesterday was my day for the exhibition, an incredible pre-lockdown treat. And she did not disappoint. I see a lot of art. I see a lot of art that I love, that impresses me, that stays with me. Artemisia’s work does all that and more. She blows me away.

And who is she? Born in Rome in 1593 and trained by her father, Orazio, Artemisia was one of the most successful and sought after painters of her day, not only in her native Italy but in Spain and England as well. She used herself as model and a painting by her, prominently signed by her with her likeness captured within it became not only a desirable status symbol for collectors but a very clever bit of self-promotion. The creation of self as brand, way before Warhol. Equally as remarkable, Artemisia is thought to be the first woman to prosecute a man for rape, after she was attacked by her father’s studio assistant, Agostino Tassi, when she was 17. A transcript of the trial remains, and is included in the exhibition, with the details of the physical torture she endured under questioning. The outcome is somewhat vague, with most historians agreeing that Tassi was found guilty but evaded punishment. Immediately following the trial, Artemisia married, moved to Florence with her new husband and launched a career that included the powerful Medici family and Charles I of England as patrons.

She fell out of history, as so many female artists do, until she was ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century, but a rediscovery that has required no modern-day myth making. Everything we say about Artemisia today was said about Artemisia then: her ability to capture light, to portray emotion, to ferment a scene down to its essence. Her heroines are not ambivalent, neither are they coy. Her Judith’s are fierce, her Susannah’s are terrified, her Mary Magdalene is so powerfully self-possessed it seems contemporary, her Christ Child’s chubby little hand against his mother’s face is more tender in its realism than thousands of other similar scenes. Artemisia paints women as they really are, not as fantasy or societal norms dictate, full of strength and fear and love.

My favourite painting of all, however, is not a heroine or a goddess or a saint, but the muse of painting as a self-portrait, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. Purchased by Charles I, and now in the Royal Collection, I saw it years ago at the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Charles I’s collection and it has stayed with me. It captures the muse of painting painting herself. It is not only beautifully executed: the light, the fabrics, the position of the hands, that swaying skull necklace!, but it is the truth of it that overwhelms me. A painting of painting painting herself as herself. WOW.  I am, it says. I AM.

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In these turbulent times, and maybe times have always been turbulent, there is something so extraordinary and powerful in those two words, they really (excuse the pun) pack a punch!  I AM.

hope is a thing with leaves…The masked months #3

I am acutely aware of what day it is today, which is why I am writing about something else.

2020 should have been the year of so many, many things, including the Year of Pilgrimage for UK cathedrals (43, including the Isle of Man), complete with a little blue passport and so many unique art installations to enjoy. I had hoped to spend much of the year on trains visiting as many as possible. I do love a cathedral, a cathedral with contemporary art even more. Alas, Covid came and cathedrals, like everything else, shut up tight. Since restrictions were relaxed, and the dissertation turned in, I have been trying to make up for lost time. Since the horrific terrorist attack at Nice Cathedral, in France, last week, I feel there is an urgency to reclaim, as quickly as possible, the power and majesty of these sites.

With a new lockdown looming (2 days to go) I will spread the writing of these recent adventures out. But today I can still write in real time, about today in Lichfield, a small city just north of Birmingham. I first became aware of Lichfield Cathedral at a conference I attended a few years ago about using contemporary art in cathedral settings. What was immediately obvious was that Lichfield needed no advice, in fact they seemed to be leading the way. With their own artist in residence, sculptor Peter Walker, and a very supportive Dean, Lichfield engages its community continually with a variety of projects from child-centered installations to light shows to sculpture. I chose this day to visit because both Peter Walker’s new ‘The Leaves of the Trees’ installation, in response to the Covid crisis,  and the Poppy Fields, an immersive sound and light experience, in anticipation of Remembrance Day next week, are on display. Or they were, anyway. I arrived at Lichfield, a gorgeous little Tudoresque town of American dreams, to learn that Poppy Fields 2020 had been cancelled thanks to the impending lockdown. And the cathedral was closing early. However, with the kindness of Verger Chris, I made the most of my 75 minutes.

Dedicated to St. Chad, the first Bishop of Lichfield, the Cathedral was built in 700, with additions through the centuries. Badly damaged during the English Civil War, sword marks are still visible on some of the now faceless stone carvings in the blind arcades, others worn by exposure after the roof collapsed, the Cathedral was rebuilt and restored by Bishop Hackett almost immediately following the restoration of the monarchy in 1661. As was their wont, the Victorians left their mark, including a rather stunning metalwork screen, lots of new heads for the arcades and an intricately carved reredos in the Lady Chapel.

Walker’s metal leaves, each one stamped with the word Hope, fan out across the floor in an area otherwise dedicated to military engagements that are less comfortable to 21st century sensibilities.

The juxtaposition is interesting, the suggestion perhaps that we, like the building itself, are constantly having to rebuild and realign ourselves. Not to erase the past but welcome in the new, to allow a blending of then and now in order to create an atmosphere that resonates with today. The reality of what was with the optimism of what can be. Or better yet, the reality of what is with the hope of what is. The long lasting effects of terrorism and Covid, the potential outcome of the US election, the re-evaluation of history, the timeless persistence of kindness and love. I thought of the lines from the John O’Donohue poem I saw on the Tube, this morning, ‘Try, as best you can, not to let / The wire brush of doubt / Scape from your heart / All sense of yourself’

As I stood in the otherworldly, dusky light and the thoughtful stillness of the Cathedral I knew it to be a place where wire brushes, if not forbidden, were at least kept at bay. It was a good day to be there.

Here we go again…Masked months #2

Well Boris is sending us back into lockdown. Not a surprise, really, but there seems to be very little enthusiasm for it this time round. Or much trust that we aren’t entering an endless cycle of lockdowns. So grateful I took full advantage of the museums when I could, even if the experience had, at times, a surreal quality to it. Last week, I tagged along when my youngest went to do some sketching at the Tate Britain for a GCSE art assignment. As my daughter filled her notebook with Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths and the fabulous Sarah Lucas chair, I roamed the almost empty building. Aside from a handful of other solo wanderers, the only other visitors were young people sketching sculpture, for the same assignment, I presume. While it should be lovely to have a museum almost to myself, and little makes me happier than to see young people engaging with art, it became depressing rather quickly. The Tate is a buzzy place. Well it was anyway.

Happily, the Steve McQueen Year 3 project is still on display and spending time with all those smiley, gorgeous children is a great mood booster. McQueen, artist and film maker best known for Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave, photographed every Year 3 class in London, 76,000 children in total,  in 2018, and hung the pictures all the way up the walls of the Duveen Galleries. McQueen’s installation shows, in real time, what London looks like now, what it will look like in the future, in all its beautiful diversity.  Year 3 educates 7 & 8 year olds, an age when most haven’t learned yet to be self-conscious and posed, so the children are smiling broadly and openly. So many rays of sunshine in these unsettled and unsettling times.

Over the recent half-term break, this same daughter and I visited the Royal Academy Summer (now Winter) show. A dizzying mix of work by both the famous and the undiscovered,  the professional and the amateur, the established and the enthusiast. As always, a fabulous combination of the coveted and the confusing in art. It was nothing, however, compared to the Young Artists’ Summer show featuring works by 5-19 year olds on the other side of the building. The creativity, the skill, the imagination, the referencing, the reworking, the sheer talent…I was overwhelmed.  In only its second year, the judges received almost 18,000 submissions and somehow were able to choose 500 to showcase on the walls and on-line.   Like McQueen’s installation, it filled me with some much needed optimism. These kids just keep on keeping on, extraordinarily, no matter what.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last…as we made our way out of the Royal Academy courtyard a large group of recently made-redundant RA employees, young adults all, were gathering for a little protest. Youth and young adult unemployment is at its highest level in almost 5 decades. Resources and opportunities were stretched before the shocker that is 2020, now they have evaporated. Never mind their ability to keep on keeping on, what kind of future are we offering  young people to  keep on with? At least the schools are staying open, in the UK.

Bruce Nauman, the American conceptual artist known for his neon signs and provocative installations, has a retrospective on at the Tate Modern. No surprise that my sixteen year old son liked Nauman’s claustrophobic cage within a cage most of all. Made in 1974, today it looks like pure lockdown in a windowless room.  The so-called new normal, but a lifestyle that surely cannot be sustained.

My London Passion: The Masked Months…#1

I had been thinking about reprising the My London Passion blog for several days now, My London Passion: The Masked Months. It has been three years since my final, 100th post, when I decided it was time to move on. And time moved on at quite the pace. Until suddenly, in March 2020, it stopped. Or rather time didn’t stop but we did, frozen in a strange and disturbing lockdown existence. In September, when the restrictions remained eased and the children were finally, finally, finally allowed back to school and I emerged from the basement having been typing away on a dissertation for months, blinking in the sunlight, I re-engaged with the world as much as legally possible and started up my London adventuring with a passion. Why not share it? So, I spent several mornings typing away, but nothing seemed to flow. Then came a message from a dear friend since teenage years. She wanted me to know that overnight her house had been vandalized and covered with death threats and homophobic slurs. Her older son is a ballet dancer and happens to be gay.

Remember way back in the Spring, at the beginning of the Covid crisis when along with the fear and the frustration there was also a sense of hope, a belief that we were going to emerge from the crisis a changed earth, a changed people,  with clean oceans and smog free skies and endless, reciprocal acts of kindness? A world in which peace would guide and love would steer…well, alas, that Age of Aquarius never really got dawning, did it? Violence, anger, greed, viciousness and fear have made spectacular comebacks. It makes you want to howl at the moon. And look at art. Not necessarily for any sort of explanation or redemption, but because sometimes the best thing art can do is initiate a gathering of shaking heads, a collection of sighs, an acknowledgment, once again, of how exhausting and debilitating hate is.

Theaster Gates, a Professor at the University of Chicago, is an artist of so many mediums and talents it is impossible to describe his practice succinctly, except to say he can and does pretty everything. He was to show at the Covid-cancelled Frieze this Autumn; however White Cube made his installation available to the public at their Bermondsey street gallery. Entitled, Sweet Square of Dark Abyss, it includes a series of books, outdated (one hopes, anyway) American history books, the contents of which Gates responded to with poetry and subsequently re-covered and re-titled with the poems. Within the work Nump, is this pair, my favourite, which reads: LET ME BE / OH LORD, LET ME BE

I thought immediately of a poem I was introduced to during Spring lockdown through the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast. ‘The Book of Genesis’ by Kei Miller, a Professor at the University of Exeter, which imagines a world in which our sole influence is the word LET.  Not ‘allow’, which suggests some level of power structure, but LET, a word through which anything can happen. What would a world be like if we could just let each other be, to dance, to write, to paint, to love, to live, just as we are, just as we can become.

‘Suppose there was a book full only of the word,
let – from whose clipped sound all things began: fir
and firmament, feather, the first whale — and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us —
we would stumble through the streets with open books,
eyes crossed from too much reading; we would speak
in auto-rhyme, the world would echo itself — and still
we’d continue in rounds, saying let and let and let
until even silent dreams had been allowed.’

Within the shock and horror my friend, her family and her entire community are experiencing a new solidarity has emerged. The outpouring of support and kindness has been, well, as it should be, enormous. I have a postcard of the Bob and Roberta Smith piece, What Unites Human Beings Is Huge And Wonderful, in a frame, in my home. The original is written on two large doors.  Even in its reduced size it is a big message, one we all need to be reminded of every day. Especially on days when hate comes in its unfortunate disguise as a spray can.

On Ray Lewis, Jasper Johns and London…the last one 100/100

davSo here it is. The 100th post. I thought this project would take 2 years.  It has taken almost 3. But, as John Lennon is credited with saying, “life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” And wow is that true. For better and for worse. The world is quite a different place than it was 3 years ago. Terror, Trump, Brexit, Corbyn, North Korea, to name but a few. But no need reiterating the obvious, let’s get to 100.  But how? What could possibly be the topic of the final scribbling? This is London, so the possibilities are endless…but it has to be right. A clear finish, a final wrap up.  The universe, who keeps me on a short leash, got tired of listening to all this self-indulgent angst and said:  “OK.  You want a final post, well hold on tight. I will give you a weekend so full of experiences and thoughts and connections, there will be a cats cradle of interwoven threads when it is done.” And so it was. And here it is.

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Several weeks ago the Cathedral asked if I would be the guide for some VIPs when the professional American football team, the Baltimore Ravens, came to town. Would I ever! Not because I follow celebrities, I am pretty clueless about most. And not because I know anything about American football, because I don’t. But because I love, feel it my raison d’etre, to show the Cathedral off to fellow Americans. Sure, I am delighted to show round any and all nationalities, but I especially enjoy the Americans. Because only the best of my country come to the Cathedral. The best of the best. It makes me proud. I have met amazing Americans. Of all ages, regions, ethnic backgrounds, interests and lifestyle cofchoices.  They are people whose existence I want to be reminded of as often as possible, particularly of late, when so much of not-our-best seems to be on permanent display. The one thing all these visitors have in common is curiosity. Intellectual curiosity. A dying virtue. So, on Friday, there I was. No surprise, the Ravens’ VIPs were terrific. Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, Hall  of Fame players both. I took these lovely gentlemen and their sizable entourage on a tour of the American Chapel and the Quire, which they seemed to enjoy very much. But upon leaving the Quire, Bill Viola’s video art installation Mary caught Ray Lewis’s eye….and despite the efforts of the handlers, I had to speak. It had stopped him in his tracks, after all.  It is piece that I feel passionately about. The essence of human life, in cofsome ways.  As I gushed away about why this work is so relevant for us today, I could actually see the instant (it didn’t take long) when Mr. Lewis got it. I mean he really “got it.” That beautiful moment when you are talking about art and you see the spark in the other person. Not only was he charming, interested and curious, he got the Bill Viola. Honestly, I have the best job in the world. I floated out of the Cathedral.

And onto more art. Not ready to go home,  I popped into the RA for a preview peek of the Jasper Johns retrospective. Another American. And one who is without question one of the best of the best. At the first glimpse of his Target, I almost wept. It was the perfect carry on from the morning. Concrete, or rather paper and paint and objects, proof that not all is broken in my native land. That there is still greatness. And Johns is great. One of the greatest.  So much of his work is about seeing and, a rather loaded word these days, perceiving. How we perceive the world matters. Johns is a master at asking us to look at the familiar with fresh eyes. cofHis art invites us to look again, “let go of habits of perception and see things in a new way.” In today’s ever polarized society, these are almost fighting words. Oh yeah…and Johns is perhaps most famous for his American flags. A symbol, once again, mired in controversy. But that is Sunday….

As if Friday hadn’t been full enough I had one more engagement. Theatre. The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. I have a  complicated relationship with Mr. Butterworth’s work, but this is a play about the cycle of  violence of the IRA (though they certainly don’t have the monopoly on this most damaging of issues.) The acting was excellent, despite someone walking off stage due to illness in the 3rd act and the understudy having a broken hand. Add a real but unhappy goose, a pocketed bunny, and an unusually placid baby into the mix and I admit I did wonder if health and safety had had a chance to look round. But the message of the play was clear. This world is a disaster thanks to our own doing. Ever thus. And on to the next.

davHaving just turned 49 I have given myself the challenge of running 50 races or running events before turning 50. Almost immediately I realised this was a challenge of dedication and logistics rather than athleticism.  Or so I thought. The first 5 races were rather fabulous. The 6th, Sunday morning, 10k in Hyde Park. The weather was glorious. One of those perfect, warm London autumn days. The location could not have been more beautiful. Hyde Park, in the sunshine. And the race, sponsored by a Crohn’s Disease charity, was well organised.  But my legs weren’t in it. They were tired and tight and every step hurt. Every very slow step. It is true that there is no run you regret. But there are runs that disappoint. This was one.  Alas.  Life often disappoints.

But a slow run is really not something to fuss about. I went home via Marble Arch, for a little trip down memory lane. Because it was here, just off Marble Arch that I lived for 3 months in the Winter of 1989 while attending LSE.  Art and theatre, theatre and art is davhow I spent most of my time. What had always been an ember burst into flame over those months. I was hooked. No wonder many, many years later, for reasons that have nothing to do with me at all except for exceptionally good taste in a husband, I was back. Art, theatre and everything that London has to offer. While revelling in nostalgia I noticed the new  sculpture, Celebration of Life, by Bushra Fakhoury. Dancing with naked, masked abandon. Yup, that is it. But I couldn’t linger for long as I had promised to take the kids to the Colourscape on Clapham Common.

Colourscape, an annual music festival “of unusual instruments and sound,” since 1989, the same year I first lived in London.  The wait was so long I sent my children to find conkers. Conkers aren’t just so English, they aren’t just beautiful symbols of Autumn, they keep moths at bay. I need them. Stephen and Katherine returned with two bulging mdesacks. Very pleased. But while alone in the slow moving queue, social media started to implode. Ray Lewis had dropped to his knees during the American national anthem at Wembley Stadium.  And people on both sides of the issue went wild. Insane. Out of their minds. With hate. So much hate. He seemed to have suddenly become the most reviled person in the world. No small feat these days. Everybody, from all sides, was baying for blood. Yikes. And the language being used, again, from all sides of the argument was unacceptable. Utterly unacceptable. Ugly, ugly ugly stuff. I was mulling over how much I would not like to be famous when we finally made it to the top of the queue. And those thoughts were put on hold.  We stepped into  Colourscape and time evaporated. We were literally cocooned in colour and sound. Strolling musicians at every rounded turn. So peaceful and beautiful. Yet the shifting colours made me feel unsteady. The experience, as lovely as it was, was unsettling, disorienting. Such is life, isn’t it. Unsteady even at the best of times. When I got home I switched on the television to watch the opening ceremony of the Invictus 10631274_949261878433867_4232479405504663826_o (2)Games, the Olympic-style games for wounded service people, an event close to my heart.  (see post #96.)  The overriding message, or series of messages, of the long weekend fell into place.  No one, Prince Harry reminded the audience, would have wished to be eligible for these games. Yet here they are.  The keynote speaker before him,  a man who had been attacked with an axe by the Taliban, said that no one thinks it is going to be them, until it is. And the competitors all spoke, after they crossed the finish line, of having made a choice, a choice, sometimes against all odds, to keep going. To keep going when life if horrifically, cruelly or even just irritatingly, interrupted. Real life happens as you’re busy making other plans.

davMy gorgeous, fabulous, wonderful sister in law, who I have known since we were teenagers, has breast cancer. The devastating recent hurricanes and floods and earthquakes. The seemingly unbreakable cycles of violence. The idolization of symbols and causes and slogans over the simple act of caring for one another. The hate. It is enough to set the Black Dog howling. And here I come with my tiny little banner of hope. Call me naive or even stupid, though I prefer the epitaph that a lovely elderly Indian visitor to the Cathedral gave me, “most excellently cheerful.” Perhaps that is why I was brought back to London. Because in this greatest of all cities I will never ever be lacking in things to inspire, to be curious about, to fill me with crazy, passionate joy. Not just the big stuff, and lucky me, I have plenty of big stuff, but the little moments too. Sharing a great piece of art with someone who gets it. Running, slowly, past a Henry Moore sculpture. An uncrowded art gallery. Conkers. A bassoon player appearing round a colourful corner. Theatre with friends and yeah, being followed round by photographers at St Paul’s cathedral is pretty great too. I love them all.

So, having reached 100, writing about my adventures has come to an end. What have I learned? I am very American, in all the best ways. I love London, really, really love London. I am the luckiest person alive. And having adventures, every day that I can, with enthusiasm and joy and passion, that is what I do.  My London Passion. Thanks for sharing it with me.

@mylondonpassion