All posts by anne's london

On The Natural History Museum, a wonder of wonders 10/100

IMG_3913Inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of sources sometimes. Spent the last few days typing away on a variety of worthy topics but all with dull result. So took the kids to see the Paddington movie. What a delightful, charming film, full of gorgeous locations (I want to live in that house…the mural in the stairwell alone….) in London. And the best part was that the last many moments of the story take place in the Natural History Museum, not as an unrecognizable film set with a few outside shots of the building, but the real thing, in all its fabulousness. And as one who has spent hours and hours and hours and hours there, I am well equipped to recognize the beauty that is Alfred Waterhouse’s masterpiece. What a dream it would be to run through that building late at night…wearing those incredible shoes Nicole Kidman gets to wear (of course I noticed them, I adore improbable shoes). That wide staircase, those elaborately carved CNV00017columns, and the reliefs that surprise at every turn. The monkeys, the fish, the birds, the plants, the mythical beasts; and this is all before you get to any of the fossils and dinosaurs and taxidermied creatures and minerals and jewels and bits of planets and oversized creepy crawlies you normally can’t (thankfully) see…and oooh, it is an embarrassment of riches.

The reason I know it so well is that for the first two years of living in London I took my boys every Tuesday. Every single Tuesday.

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Tuesdays with Joseph and Stephen

We would visit the dinosaurs, no long line for us, and the creepy crawly exhibit; who doesn’t like moving a fly from the poop to the picnic over and over and over again. We would take long looks at the enormous fossils, especially the one found by teenager Mary Anning.

fabulous fossils
fabulous fossils

Sometimes we would look at the mammals; whales on the telephone is a draw. We always looked at the big tree; the cases in the minerals were a bit high, and the escalator in the earth science was too long and steep for comfort. But a satisfying day for everyone. Every time.

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little explorers

When grandparents came to visit we would hire the “Explorer Backpack,” a scavenger hunt of sorts with the added bonus of a borrowed helmet and binoculars. The fact that the questions remained the same meant that the children looked like geniuses, always a nice treat for the relatives.

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the half-term queue

But then school started and we couldn’t visit every week. But we kept visiting. Once we went on a Saturday and we were horrified, horrified, to see that the queue snaked all down the front and round the building….who were all these people at our museum? Even if the queue outside wasn’t long, the one inside for the dinosaurs was endless! I tried to take my older son, Joseph, on a rainy day during the recent Autumn half-term. Yikes! The queue to get in double backed on itself. All those exhausted looking parents! We felt smug remembering all those line-free Tuesdays!

We’ve skated on their gorgeous rink set up during the Christmas season many times. Even saw a proposal of marriage one particularly beautiful evening there, and yes, she said yes.

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ice skating

DSCN0071We try never to miss the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, even if we never, ever agree with the winners. And the gift shop is a must for Christmas presents.

Professor Richard Owen, the controversial character who campaigned tirelessly to have the museum built, wanted to create a place where scientists, the uninformed and the middle class hobbyist could all benefit. A place to cater to the professional, the enthusiast and the curious simultaneously. Architect Alfred Waterhouse, using designs from a variety of sources and influenced by the demands of politicians and financiers, was able to fashion a cathedral to science uniquely his own, a pleasing compromise of Italian Renaissance, Gothic Revival and German Romanesque. In other words, a blend of styles that work both physically and aesthetically.

And yet, and yet…none of that is what I love most about the Natural History Museum. It is the feeling I get when I step into all that history. Not of centuries but of millenniums and more. I think what it must have been like for those earlier fossil finders and paleontologists when they discovered things that literally changed the way people thought about the world. The excitement of researching and studying things that must have seemed magical or otherworldly or just plain amazing. Because they still are. It is a gorgeous building filled with wonderScreen Shot 2015-01-07 at 2.16.43 PMs. Just as it should be…and now imagine me with those shoes on those stairs….perfection!

On Typing about art and the magnificent Royal Academy 9/100

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 10.42.33 AMI spent far too long yesterday typing and typing away on my love for the Royal Academy (RA), that grand building on Piccadilly. But in the end all I had to show was typing. Bland, mediocre, uninteresting and certainly NOT passionate typing. The RA is magnificent and deserves better. So I conceded defeat and closed the computer. Some days are like that. But clearly the universe wasn’t finished with my feeble attempt. Not long after, I logged onto Facebook to see that a friend had spent the day at the RA enjoying both the Allen Jones and the Moroni exhibits. Lots of her friends commented, sharing their love of other exhibits there or simply time spent in the stunning seventeenth century mansion. As the thread grew longer, and I was reminded of just how much I get out of my membership there, I decided to start again.

My original “take” was that we, as a species, have always needed to create and enjoy art. (I have fun archeological facts to back this up), and obviously London is the best place to feed this primordial drive. I hoped to prove this by highlighting those shows at the RA that have shook me to my human core the most. Then I faltered. I wasn’t able to properly capture the sensuous joy I felt at the Anish Kapoor (all that red wax). And how I was overcome with misplaced nostalgia and longing at David Hockney’s trees and forests of his hometown in Yorkshire. And then the Anselm Keifer and his monumental works on monumental subjects; primarily questions as to the role of history and our duty to, relationship with, rejection or reinvention of…..oh I thought my little brain would burst with all the thinking…..

DSCN4519Which made me think of all the other pieces from all the other shows I can’t forget: the bronzes from Africa, the maltesers in the dime bags, the Van Goghs!!!, the Byzantine crosses, the tunnel built by children out of long, colourful plastic straws….the list goes on and on, each reawakened memory tapping the shoulder of the next.

And not just the art. The lunches with dear friends I have had in the restaurant. The gift shop that offers perfect gifts for those who have everything. The transformation of the previously charmless IMG-20140505-00553member’s room into a suite of beautiful spaces to eat and drink and talk. The courtyard with its changing sculptures and, if the weather is right, dancing fountains.

Then I remembered my original thesis; that art is something we need as part of our human experience. To experience. Not write about, but see, touch (if allowed), engage with, sneer at, dislike, love, learn from and most of all react to.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 10.21.02 AMSo this remains a typing exercise. But one with a bossy admonition at the end. Go to the RA immediately, (don’t worry, I will in time get to them all, my wallet is heavy with the membership cards) and do what we have been doing since prehistoric time. Art.

Oh Sam Wanamaker, your passion is my passion 8/100

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 11.44.24 AMI have come to love the theatre so much that it often moves beyond a social outing to one of spiritual pilgrimage. It was with such a sense of reverence that I went, by myself, to the recently opened Sam Wanamaker theatre, part of the Globe complex. I see as much as I possibly can at the Globe and have never been disappointed. So expectations were high, not least because I had chosen John Ford’s deliciously naughty and bloody ’tis Pity She’s a Whore, for my inaugural visit. Upon reflection, I am not quite sure what I expected. No matter. What I experienced was far beyond mere performance, but that magical realm between watching and being, when the distance between the actors and your own soul disappears and you believe this performance is being done for you and you alone. The fact that I was but inches from the stage helped. The theater, lit by candlelight, is shadowy and mysterious, and it takes no effort whatsoever to become utterly, totally, completely engrossed in the play.

Then throw in incestuous sex, nudity, jealousy, hatred, revenge, rivers of blood and generous moments of light comedy, and what you have is a practically perfect evening in a practically perfect setting.

What the Globe, and by extension the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, does so well is in taking a play that has stood the test of time and presenting it to us in all its wordy glory. We aren’t distracted by flashing sets and outlandish costumes or reinterpretations that require extensive outside study. What we get are old words, telling old stories in ways that make them relevant. They shock, amuse, sadden and enlighten in much the same way they did 400, 500 hundred years ago.

This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the sparkling musical or the challenging modern tale and I do love a comedy. But there are times to be entertained and times to be transported. And transported I was.

The Globe, or New Globe Theatre as the purists insist, is the brainchild of American actor Sam Wanamaker, who came to England after being placed on the McCarthy era Hollywood blacklist. His dream was to rebuild the Globe and bring Shakespeare back to life, not as dry text to read in classrooms but words to experience on stage. Everyone told him he was crazy. But Americans are famously determined, and there it sits on the Southbank, a tourist destination in its own right. Built in the round with an open roof. Glorious in the summer months. Closed from October to April. Which meant a long, cold winter for us enthusiasts. But no more. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, built to resemble a Jacobean indoor theatre was built and opened January 2014. A venue for plays, concerts, and knowing the Globe’s ingenuity, things I haven’t even considered, throughout the year. I look forward to seasons of the grim and the glorious in this incredible space.

On looking up….and the beauty of street art 7/100

graffiti11graffitiI’m not sure it is true that the invention of mobile phones is the reason we never look up. Other than John Betjeman, who I increasingly believe is the sole reason that London, in any sense of glory, still exists, I am not convinced we are a looking up kind of species. In general, we like to see where we are going, and looking down at our feet makes us feel more secure, less open to the world. And yes, nowadays we certainly do spend an inordinate amount of time glued to our handheld devices, myself included. And yes, it is a shame. But was ever thus, I think. However, it is a habit worth breaking as there is a fantastic amount of cool stuff happening above our heads….and that is my neat segue-way into Street Art Tours. Graffiti, by its very nature is counter cultural. graffiti5And daring. And bold. And look-what-I-did brash. It is also controversial, political, angry, funny and increasingly mainstream. So much so that street artists recently blacked out one of Berlin’s most iconic spray painted images in response to what they see as the over gentrification of that city, and by extension, their work in it. Over to you Banksy (I am quoting). But, dear reader, this blog is not about Berlin (as much as I love it so)….it is about me, me, me and my passion love affair with London. And that includes its street art.

Up and over to Shoreditch we went to spend a few hours with Karim, a street artist himself, on a Street Art Tour. And wow was it fantastic.
graffiti2We learned much, much more than the simply art of looking up, as valuable as that is. This tour includes generous doses of history and politics, some of it brutal some of it funny. All interesting. We learned you can still be arrested for graffiti, but that lots of landlords actually enjoy a bit of art on their walls. In fact, many developers invite street artists to decorate hoarding. And that the line between tagging and advertising is, no surprise really, getting mighty thin.

graffiti3We learned street art is a global phenomena. The work we saw was done by people from all over the world. Men and women. Some work had stories attached, some didn’t. But what we wanted to know most of all was “how the hell did they get up there?” These people must be ninjas or circus performers. Certainly daring, maybe crazy. But not all graffiti is up or even across, some of the most fun was down. The guy who paints on discarded chewing gum. Not technically graffiti as he is defacing someone else’s rubbish, so not punishable. Fantastic, tiny pieces these. And because my life works this way, of course I got to see him in action a few weeks later on Millennium Bridge.chewing gum man Terribly nice man. I also met the sister of the boyfriend of one of the prominent female artists, who goes by the name ‘Gold Peg.” When I asked if she was actually spiderman because her work is in impossible places, I got only a sly smile in return. And there is a code of conduct. Some work we saw has been left unmolested by others for years. A sign of true respect. Many other artists don’t fare nearly so well and tag over tag over tag can make for a dizzying affect.

Some work is ridiculous. Huge boobs are never that perky. Nor do the girls attached always carry two guns. Some naughty. Some nostalgic. graffiti7Some aren’t even painted, but made of ceramic or tile or foam or recycled materials. Some are angry. And thoughtful.   And clever, clever, clever. Though in general, the names of the “crews” are not. They should read more books. Familiarize themselves with the concept of puns and the subtle art of reference. But perhaps I ask too much. This is less art of the word rather art of concept.

And of course the personalities. And the stories. Pure Evil and his double-barreled surname. The Banksy v Robbo feud. Robbo’s fall graffiti13from a ladder and his subsequent long, slow death. But my fav has to be the one about the guy who worked at Lloyds by day and expressed himself with spray paint by night. He showed his face in a documentary on graffiti and when the powers that be found out he was fired. First thing he did was get his neck and hands tattooed, guaranteeing he could never be employed in the City again. Respect. (Of course, those of you who read the Metro with the devotion I do will remember the recent exchange between all single women of London and “City boy with sleeves” and know that this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.) But back in the day (whenever that might have been) it was. I admire this guy’s determination, even though not so keen on the neck tattoo myself.

10517935_978625805497474_89390210014310864_oKarim was superb. Not just in his knowledge and presentation, but his patience was saint like. Get the brains of 3 atypical Wandsworth women and their enormous pack of children stirring and it is rather like the existence of Halloween candy. Everything, all the time. Too much is never enough. More, more, more. In every direction. Not sure who was more exhausted by the end….but well satisfied we were.

For weeks after, we have been noticing and sometimes recognizing street art all round London. We’ve started looking up and out. Taking in. Observing London from different angles and viewpoints. Imitating John Betjeman’s St, Pancras statue. Can only be a good thing that.

To book your own street art tour: http://streetartlondon.co.uk/tours/

On Passion for all…Dorian Gray and immersive theatre…6/100

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 4.48.50 PMNot only is London a city of connections (see previous post), it is a city that nurtures obsessives. I include myself in this category. So it was with tremendous pleasure that I met Samuel Orange, last night, a man so obsessed with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, he has transformed his Greenwich townhouse, including the garden, into a spectacular set for an immersive production of the novel. And what an experience it is.

Dorian Gray is often a “first” for those of us in love with literature, because it is short. Short and funny and scary and full of terrible truths, all penned with a sharpness and wit only possible from Oscar Wilde. I remember well the first time I “discovered” him. My mother took me to see The Importance of Being Earnest at the Cincinnati Playhouse. I must have been about 14, and left the theatre overwhelmed. “How how how can someone write like that,” I asked. I still ask. Genius, in its purest form.

And Dorian Gray is no less perfect, if much more frightening. Narcissism in its most destructive, horrifying state. But irresistable as well. We would all like to be good. But bad is just so fun, and addictive. Toss in eternal youth and you have the perfect storm of evil. And that is why it is easy to understand why someone would live out of an upstairs bedroom and drape the rest of their house with silks and velvet and an ornate four poster bed and oh….I say too much. Much of the experience is exploring the set, litte bit by little bit and being amazed.

Drinks are served periodically, including “absinthe” as a delicious apple snapps. Chatting with strangers is encouraged. A very pretty (think Keira Knightely on a very very good day, minus the irritating voice and mannerisms) young girl sat sat near us at the beginning and we three inclusive matrons of Wandsworth scooped her up immediately. Turns out she is a trainee lawyer and lives with her step-mother, who was in the cast, on a houseboat. Oh I love London.

But what about the play itself? Superb. Could have sat through it all again, immediately. Samuel Orange is an extraordinary Lord Henry, witty and cruel, always hiding his utterly reprehensible behaviour behind a clever comment.

Dorian and his picture are both played by impossibly pretty young boys. They spend a delicious amount of time loving each other up. (I do enjoy a little boy-on-boy.) But this is self love in the extreme. And they destroy everyone they touch. By play’s end you are simultaneously excited and revolted. Perfect.

We were invited to stay after and “meet” the cast, which involved scrumptious vodka martinis, lots and lots of chatter and general hilarity. All in the creepy Victoriana surroundings. One of those late, late nights I will remember forever.

The official name of the production company is The Alchemic Order. In their own words, “The Alchemic Order is a unique collective of creative minds. Within a synergy of media, we propose new rituals of aesthetic transfiguration. Artistic Director, Samuel Orange collaborates with those seeking new dimensions in art, thought and life.” I think that means that Samuel lives his passion and invites others to do so as well. I admire that tremendously.

This production was first performed over the summer (2014) and then revived for the run up to Christmas. Unfortunately that means there are only 2 more shows this season. There was talk of doing it again this coming summer. And maybe something else too. I really, really hope these come to be. If last night is anything to go by, Mr. Orange does obsession well.

http://www.thealchemicorder.com/dorian.html

Follow me on Twitter: @mylondonpassion

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On connections, cabaret and red shoes… 5/100

Reason I adore London #5, because here in London the following sentence doesn’t sound out of place.

“Last night, wearing red shoes, Lucy and I went to a cabaret show at the Royal Albert Hall that featured my handstand teacher from circus school.”

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Ok, maybe a little unusual. I mean how many people are as obsessed with red shoes as me? And we all know how badly it ended for that ballerina….but I digress.

London is a huge, metropolitan, worldly city in which it is completely possible to find oneself gliding from one connection to the next. All my various threads frequently lead to one large beautiful spiderweb, and last night was a terrific example.

Starting with my gorgeous friend Lucy, who I met at the school gates. Instant attraction, not least for her irrepressible joie-de-vivre and life-is-what-you-make it attitude. Thanks to Lucy I tried circus school (will write about that eventually…..) and loved it. But not as much as Lucy does. In 9 months, Lucy has gone from a trembling wreck a top the trapeze ledge to someone who not only flies with confidence but writes, blogs, tweets so much about circus, and by extension, cabaret, that she has made a name for herself in her own right in this world. So the perfect person with whom to enjoy a Christmas Cabaret. But enough about her, this blog is all about me, me, me…..

WChristmas Cabarete arrived at RAH, not wanting to miss one second, rather too early. In fact, a worthy carol concert was taking place in the main auditorium with formidable matrons swathed in brocade belting out Oh Come All Ye Faithful. The ushers looked askance at us. Not only far too young (no seriously, we were), but all dolled up gasping for champagne. They kept stopping us asking to see our tickets as we roamed the empty passageways waiting for the Elgar Room to open upstairs, clutching our flutes of bubbly. And they seemed stunned when they saw we weren’t lying about the cabaret.

And finally it was time. Within moments of being ushered in, the divine MC for the night, Reuben Kaye, aka Ruby, swooped down on us, well Lucy, kisses all round. They know each other from former fab evenings. I had to ask about Ruby’s eyelashes and the sparkling lippy and the jacket and the…..Oh I wanted everything EVERYTHING he was wearing. And then the super sexy waitresses came along, with stockings I wanted even more…..let the naughtiness begin!  Christmas Cabaret 2

My teenage daughter asked me earlier in the day what the difference between cabaret and a strip club is. Well, the short answer is not a whole lot, except cabaret sounds much classier and I go. So it is. The slightly longer answer is that it is much more beautiful, with terrific music, and the women are strong. Crazy, insanely, circus strong. Flexible too, but that is a given. Cabaret is also popular with the more flamboyant members of the gay community, a community I seem to increasingly find myself involved with, which I love. NO ONE can flirt like a mature gay man. I recently lead a tour for the Gentlemen’s Walking Group of the Camden Chapter of AgeUK….25 charmers following me through the streets of London. Heaven. And my kiss from gorgeous retired gay porn star, Aiden Shaw, back in September, is a tale I am STILL dining out on…

The show, the show, back to the show…. drinks, dinner and the show. It wasn’t nearly as naughty as I hoped, and the audience was rather lackluster. Ruby and Miss Polly Rae did try bloody hard, but a general spirit of fun seemed to be lacking from the crowd. Well it was Royal Albert Hall, after all. Maybe the proverbial hair never really comes down there. But the acts were great.

SammyPerhaps I am biased, but I thought my handstand teacher, Sammy Dinneen was incredible. It is always nice to see men in the spotlight and he makes it all seem so easy. Trust me, it is not.

Cabaret always has an element of maybe you see it, maybe you don’t, and to add to the frisson the “theme” of the night was “my secret is…” I LOVE secrets. I have loads and loads of secrets. Many of them aren’t vaguely interesting. I just like the idea of having them. This summer, in Las Vegas, I met the installation artist, Taxiplasm, and went to the opening of his show, “Tell Me Your Secrets” in which I enthusiastically participated. No, I won’t tell you what I whispered into his ear. I won’t tell you what I wrote on the paper they gave me last night either. In any case, it wasn’t deemed worthy to read aloud….and Ruby turned his favs into a hilarious rendition of 12 days of Christmas, with the stirring #5 being someone’s heartfelt “No English, sorry,” which we did all shout with gusto at the appropriate times. And that is it. Cabaret is different from strip tease because it is clever. Very clever. And funny, at times, champagne snorting out of nose funny. And, for me, anyway, this Christmas treat seemed to be encapsulate the highlights of 2014, in red shoes. Fabulous!

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @LucyLovesCircus or read her blog: http://lucylovescircus.blogspot.co.uk

@sammydinneen

 

On the hunt for elephants, bears, eggs, buses, mascots and more-Adventure Trails 4/100

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The thrill of finding the 83rd and final Olympic Mascot!

For someone who enjoys travel and exploring so much, I have an appalling sense of direction. I am a trained tour guide, for heavens sakes, and still find referring to direction using compass points stressful. “North” means nothing to me, unless I am actually standing on the Southbank gazing across the river. And reading a map? Even worse. I always feel maps are but suggestions of where I might be and where I may end up…with endless, pointless, frustrating diversions in between.

However, if you want to see me leap from my couch, map clutched in hands, desperate for the challenge, then drop themed sculptures all over London and tell me to find them. OOOh I do love a good hunt!!

I have searched for elephants and eggs and Olympic mascots, crazy hats, more eggs, book benches and currently, simultaneously hunting buses and Paddington Bears. There is something about rouding a corner, shortly after moaning aloud “it has to be here somewhere…” and seeing it there in the distance….a bus covered in painted safety pins, Paddington doffing his hat, that fills me with joy.

What is about these treasure hunts that I love so much. Well I do love a challenge. And checking things off lists. And photo opportunities. And the sense of accomplishment. And the creativity that goes into the making and

Bear in the Wood outside St. Paul's
Bear in the Wood outside St. Paul’s

planning of both the objects and the hunt. I love the excuse to drag children all over the city. I love the moments you share with strangers. “Oh Mummy is losing the will to live,” groaned a woman next to me in St. Paul’s churchyard….and then we both saw the object of our desire and bonded over this short term happiness. “If you are looking for the Paddington, he is right round the corner,” a young woman told us, clearly noticing the glazed desperate look in my eyes as I clutched the increasingly creased map. She has never heard such effusive thanks.

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Shakesbear, outside Globe Theatre

Of course it is vital that you have at least one child in tow. This not only makes the photography more acceptable, but creates the impression that you are on some sort of cultural outing.

And there are practical benefits. The only way I can begin to find my way round the West End (does no street run straight?) is that I spent hours and hours and hours trying to find the eggs, making endless navigational mistakes. And there are the unexpected moments. I would never have met the chewing gum graffiti man on Millennium Bridge had we not been in pursuit of 2 Paddingtons and 4 buses.

These hunts are, of course, largely fundraising exercises. I had a unnerving experience, years ago, when I boldly bid on an egg in order to be invited to the “supporters” party at Covent Garden. I felt quite sure I would be quickly outbid. But I wasn’t. Not for days and days and days. In fact it went down to the wire, with only hours to go before the auction ended. Was already well into planning the groveling,  explanation speech for husband when some angel from heaven offered more money. The relief was overwhelming.  That said….I do quite fancy having a bus…..

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Journey to Anywhere, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
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Brolly Bus, Bankside
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Lest We Forget, Horse Guards Avenue

What are you waiting for? Download that map. Grab the nearest child and any photographic device and get out here with me. A great way to explore the city!

On Alchemy at London Bridge-London Glassblowing 3/100

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Enchanted audience

“Come visit us, we blow every day,” whispered the charming, dapper artist and gallery owner, Peter Layton. How could I resist an offer like that? And so I was introduced to what glassblowing3has become one of my favourite London haunts. London Glassblowing on Bermondsey Street, not far from London Bridge. Who would have thought that in one of the busiest parts of this busy, busy city is a studio where beautiful, delicate things are made in much the same way they have for hundreds of years. With strength, fire, imagination and a whole lot of patience a burning liquid metamorphasises into something extraordinary.   The process is mesmerizing to watch, for children and adults alike. And the artists, men and women, are always willing to explain, describe and show off their talent. It is like seeing alchemists at work. The furnaces burn hot, hot and time just slips away.

Bruce Marks at work
Bruce Marks at work

I have spent many a happy hour just sitting and watching the magic happen.

The gallery, in front of the studio, winks at you from the street, especially later in the day. Full of shining, twinkling, fragile bits of beauty. Gallery assistants, Rushka and James greet visitors with enthusiasm. The atmosphere is simultaneously calm and charged with creativity. There is an otherworldly quality to it all. Which makes leaving and returning to the outside hustle and bustle a bit of a shock.

Poppy  by Peter Layton
Poppy by Peter Layton
Birds by Bruce Marks
Birds by Bruce Marks

On Crazy Customs–Guys, Grapes and Taking the Piss 2/100

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Remember, remember the 5th of November. More remembering today. Just of a very different kind. Not so much a London thing as an English thing. And wow do the English have some crazy customs and traditions. Today being perhaps the most baffling of all, to a foreigner. For today is Guy Fawkes Night, or more recently Bonfire Night. And what happens on this evening?, you ask. Well, an enormous bonfire is built and lit, an effigy of “Guy” is made from old clothes and appropriately flammable materials and tossed on the bonfire. Then follows a fireworks display. Fun for the whole family.

Wait, wait, wait, I hear you, the bemused outsider (BO) calling, you make a “Guy” and burn him???

London Passion (LP): Yes.

BO: How….unusual. Why?

LP: Well (the quick & simple version) because back in the year 1605 a Catholic by the name of Guy Fawkes thought it an excellent idea to try and blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill (Protestant) king James I. His plot failed as he was ratted out, possibly by his co-conspirators. Mr. Fawkes was captured, tortured and then hanged, drawn and quartered (pretty awful). The others involved were executed in St. Paul’s churchyard. Most likely, Guy was only the fall guy (ha ha ha) not the brains behind the operation, and like all good historical yarns, this one has more sub plots and conspiracy theories than you can wave a sparkler at. Regardless, this near miss is marked each and every year in the above described manner.

BO: And this is a celebrated holiday?

LP: Yes. A tradition most revered. I expect all of my English friends to fill the comment box with tales of ages past when they used dear grandfather’s clothes to make their own Guy and wheeled him round the streets receiving coins from neighbours for their troubles.

BO: (stunned silence)

LP: Bonfire Nights have become a big business for local governments. They spend the calendar year planning the event. In my area, the local private schools get together and put on their own display on the Friday closest to the 5th. I am in charge of selling tickets. I can’t believe drug dealers have a more rabid and desperate clientele than me.

Tonight I will attending a friends lavish Bonfire Night party…South of the Border has nothing on the fireworks display our local Mr. C puts together. Drinks will be served, children will be narrowly rescued from flames and everyone will have a very jolly time.

Another amusing custom is that of bringing grapes to someone in hospital. Magazines, yes I can see the point.  A fruit that needs to be washed, not so much. I have no idea where this practise comes from. I hope someone will tell me. grapesThe other week I found this fantastic bit of sculpture on the railings of St. Guy’s Hospital in London. The poor man has received so many bunches of grapes that his hospital room has been transformed into a vineyard. So clever. And so typically self-deprecating. And one more wonderful English custom: “the piss take,” or the national sport of mockery. There is almost nothing the English can’t laugh at, most of all themselves.

Oh London, you really do have it all: burning catholics, unnecessary grapes and the strength of character to know when something is ridiculous and love it anyway.

On Grand Gesture–The Poppies 1/100

Poppies at Tower 5 Oct.

One of the many things that my wonderful London does well is the Grand Gesture. Think back to the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee….happy people as far as the eye could see. And London has done it again with these poppies. I know, I know, the poppies around the Tower is probably the most shared photo on FB at the moment, in the UK anyway, but for good reason.

beefeater in poppiesThis installation is sensational. And moving. And just plain beautiful. Definitely something that any of you who can physically get to the Tower MUST, MUST see. Yes, I too have heard the reports that it has gotten so crowded people are being encouraged to stay away, but go, go, even if that means you go at dawn. Then as you look down on those waves of red, remember that every single one of the (to be) 888, 246 ceramic poppies represents a life lost by a member of the British military in WWI. The Great War. The War to end all wars. Wow, we’ve done a spectacularly bad job of that. True, true. But the other half of that evil coin is that we forget. So we haven’t eradicated war, quite the opposite it feels today, but “Lest We Forget” has been proven unfounded.

If you really want a heartwrenching treat, squeeze yourself there forlost post in poppies the Roll of Honour. Originally planned as a weekly event, the response was so immediately overwhelming the ceremony is daily, starting now from 16:55. But you will need to get there early. Names are read. The Last Post is played. Collective breath is held. And then those gathered feel emotionally drained, yet uplifted. Reminded that sacrifice and honour still matter in this cold, selfish world.

The Poppies at the Tower. My London Passion 1/100.

There until 11 November only.

kids at poppies
Waiting for the Roll of Honour to begin, in the rain.