All posts by anne's london

On Chelsea Hospital and Turning Strangers into Friends….98/100

davA trait I have inherited from my father is the ability, no,  the compulsion to talk to strangers. I know my children hate it, my friends cringe, but I can’t help myself. Nor do I have any desire to curb this habit as it almost always turns out well, sometimes very well indeed. At the recent Chelsea Flower Show I began chatting with one of the Chelsea Pensioners, resplendent in his iconic red coat. I invited him to St. Paul’s. He came the following Tuesday. He invited me to lunch at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, the world famous home of the Pensioners. Friends welcome. And this is how Ange, Lizzie and I got to spend Monday, a gorgeous, sunny, beautiful, London summer day, at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. What a treat!

davCharles II, motivated, as much by admiration and envy of the French system,  as desire to do the right thing, in 1681, issued a Royal Warrant to build the Royal Hospital “for the succor and relief of Veterans broken by Age and War,” and more than 300 years on it is still going strong. It is a place of wonder and beauty and its Pensioners are the toast of the town, wherever they go. “Hospital”  in its original form means hospitality more than a place of medical care, and while there is a medical wing in the current complex, is was place in which to live out life with dignity, including a bed and meals, something many 17th century soldiers would have found to be the height of luxury. Expectations have changed and so has thedav Hospital, so that the  sense of luxury remains in tune with todays standards. So much so that my friend Ange and I are plotting how we too can get ourselves a spot. We need to wait ’til we are 65, bump off  the husbands and join the army. Ok, the first two are doable, the third a bit trickier but we are resourceful women. Because this place is gorgeous! GORGEOUS.

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The Wren Chapel is particularly stunning, built by the great man Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame himself, in the 1680s. It is still a local parish church, it was the church of Baroness Margaret Thatcher and Denis. They are both buried on the grounds. cof

 

Ok, the individual rooms are a bit cramped but the idea is that one spends a little time alone as possible. There are large common areas where games abound. Posters and flyers for outings are everywhere. The grounds are stunning. The bar is open from 10:30 am and that red coat. Oh how much I would like to swan round in a red coat like that. Would need to nick a few medals to pin to my chest, obviously, but otherwise I think I would look dashing. And London would fall at my feet. London falls at all the Pensioners’ feet, as well it should.

davYes, there are women in the hospital, since 2009.  Today there are 15. But they don’t get on with each other, we were told. We assumed this was just male hyberbole until Ange started chatting with the female pensioner in the gift shop. “We had a lovely tour of the Chapel from one of the other women, Xxxx.” “PHeffff” was the immediate response. “I don’t like her. No one likes her.” Ange was stunned into silence. Ok then. No group singing of “We are family, I’ve got all my  sisters with me,”  for this lot. But the men seem to get on. One of the gentlemen we met had recently been hugged, on television, by Jo Konta, at Wimbledon. The press were now after him. Are you “that man,” we joked (having been prompted  by Peter). Yes he acknowledged, with a smile, he was. But no autographs today. We all laughed. We laughed often on Monday. Peter told fantastic and funny stories of his life and his time in Chelsea. But there is a solemn side to it all as well. These are men and women who have seen conflict, of the most brutal kind. And many of their friends paid the highest price. Standing in the North Front is a larger than life statue of a Pensioner, arm raised, as if hailing a cab (it is Chelsea, after all). Around the base are the words Sir Jacob Astley spoke before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, known as the Soldier’s Prayer: “O Lord you know how occupied I shall be this day. If I forget thee do not forget me.” Words that pierce the soul.

sdrBut this is not a sad place, not at all.  There is not any sense of what most of us generally feel when in an institution for older people: Despair. Chelsea Hospital tackles head on the great scourge of our modern times, especially for those in advancing years: loneliness. To be lonely here would take an effort. In a world that is becoming increasingly fractured and alienating, Royal Hospital Chelsea retains a tangible sense of community. A belonging. We should all be so lucky. There is a lot we could learn from this place. It was an honour and privilege to be invited in. A perfect London day indeed. dav

 

 

On Para Athletics and the Olympic Legacy…96/100

davOne of the many controversies surrounding the Olympic Games is the concept of “legacy.” Each city makes big promises. None deliver. None except London. London has done a fantastic job with the Olympic legacy. Sure, I have no doubt lots of people have lots of gripes, but overall it is something of which to be proud. Olympic Stadium now the home of West Ham. The aquatics complex in constant use by the public. Beautiful and popular Olympic Park. But the best legacy of all is the London attitude to disabled athletes. There isn’t a city in the world that can claim what we have. Popularity.

413539_516340165059376_890046018_oThink back to that dreamy summer of 2012. The Paralympics weren’t just attended, they weren’t just well attended, they were sold out. SOLD OUT. I saw more sports that I can even remember, and the venues were packed. Crowds cheering, flags waving, heroes made, breakfast television couches filled, more victims for the paparazzi. Of course, this could all have been just leftover euphoria from the incredibly successful Olympic games. Except that it lasted. It still exists.

It was not too much before the Olympics that I became involved in the charity Walking with the Wounded, an organization that helps soldiers with life-changing injuries create a new life in the civilian world. Through a friend I met the founder, my boys’ school chose them as their charity of the year, I ran the marathon for them in 2013. Later in 2013 I climbed Kilimanjaro, with 4 friends and a wounded serviceman, Ibi Ali. It was a phenomenal experience. Through Walking with the Wounded, injured ex-military have done extraordinary things. Artic Circle, Antarctica, Marathon des Sables and more.

In 2014 Prince Harry founded the Invictus Games, Olympic style games for wounded service people, first held in London. My Kili friends and I couldn’t buy tickets fast enough. But 10531422_948361465190575_3824424820928126635_owe weren’t  the only ones. Once again, the venues were crowded with loud, enthusiastic members of the public. Like the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 Invictus Games were a magical few days, finishing off with a concert in Olympic Park which may have been one of the best I have ever been to, not least because the line-up included my beloved Frank Turner and the10419582_947826481910740_2477249639805078664_n incomparable Foo Fighters. It is impossible not to feel overwhelmed with awe when the lyrics “learning to walk again” are being shouted by women and men with prosthetic legs who, on a bad day, can run far faster than I can on my best day. Inspiring indeed.

Fast forward a few years and while I don’t raise money for WWTW anymore (they have rather outgrown the efforts of Wandsworth women,) my interest in paraathletics has not dimmed. So I was delighted to attend the 2017 World Para Athletic Championships, in the previous Olympic stadium, now known as London Stadium, last Saturday night, with my younger two in tow. Happy to repeat myself in saying we weren’t alone. The stadium was plenty full. The people around me were knowledgeable about the competitors. The crowd went crazy when the British were on the track or field, even more so when they won. And win they did. Often.IMG-20170716-WA0004 (2) The highlight was the 200m…starring gold medal paralympian Richard Whitehead and Invictus superstar and bronze medal paralympian Dave Henson. They finished 1st and 3rd. The stadium roared. It roared again when Hollie Arnold broke the world record in the javelin. It roared when the Kenyans ran too. Actually the noise was consistently high throughout. Lots of Americans competed and won as well. When interviewed they all said the same  thing, that London was the “best, the BEST” place to compete. London’s legacy. Doesn’t get much better than that.

On Cancelled Flights, Baby Blackbirds, Wimbledon….and St. Paul’s 95/100

davSome days just don’t turn out the way they were planned. Saturday was one of those. I was going to collect my older son, Joseph, at Heathrow early in the morning, back from 3 weeks of surfing and climbing in California. After some suitable home comfort spoiling, I would leave him to sleep, no doubt he would be in desperate need, and I would still have plenty of time to get to the roof garden of One New Change, the shiny, retail complex across from St Paul’s, and watch Venus Williams, a player I have adored for close to two decades, win her 6th Wimbledon title. Well that was the plan, anyway. Things took at turn at 4 am. Joseph called to say his flight had been cancelled and as he is underage the airline (yes, that same one that has gotten such bad press recently) weren’t at all interested in finding him somewhere to stay until a new flight could be found. They weren’t too concerned about finding him a new flight either, actually asked him to leave the queue as “the line is  too long to help 19942839_10156396567574368_8958150766087905082_oyou.” Nice. We found him a hotel room and a few stand by options. “Don’t worry,” he  told us. “I will be fine here in San Francisco. I don’t mind staying a few more days.” Yeah, I have no doubt about that. Very exciting end to what had been a very happy adventure.

A few hours later, bleary eyed, I walked downstairs to hear a cheeping sound coming from the basement. “For heavens sake,” I snapped at my younger son “turn off that damn play station.” “It isn’t the play station, Mum. There is a bird in the basement.” WTF? A bird in the basement? How in the hell did a bird get in the basement? It has been very hot and the skylights in the kitchen had been left open…so maybe? But there it was. Cheeping away. Huddled near the door to the outside, a door that is never opened. Cheeping and hopping, because one of its wing was broken. I managed to get the door open and move the bird outside, into the stairwell. And then the rest of my family disappeared. Out for the day. This poor little creature left in the care of a woman well known for her general disinterest in animal welfare. Unlikely and unlucky for this bird.

I went next door to ask the neighbour’s opinion. “I’ll wring its neck,” Paul offered. But isn’t a pigeon, I told them. If it were a pigeon, no problem. But it is a cute little thing. They rushed over to see. Oh, its a blackbird, a baby blackbird, they told me. Which made sense as an adult blackbird often suns herself on our astroturf in the garden. So that must be the mother bird and this must be her chick. No more talk of neck wringing. I called London Wildlife. “Yes, we can come get it, but it might take a while,” they responded. “But you will need to protect it ’til we get there.” I went back outside and the sweet thing had hopped up all the steps and was making a break for freedom, towards the Common. “Don’t worry,” I texted back “he has run away.” Phew, I thought. That is the end of that. Lucky escape. For me, anyway.

mde“No” came the immediate response. “He won’t survive the hour. Go get him.” Suddenly feeling  the weight of my responsibility, I dashed back out the front door with a shoebox in hand.  A delivery van came to a screeching halt. The driver jumped out. “Are you looking for the bird? He went that way.” And the chase began. Clamoring over fences and rubbish bins. The lovely driver finally caught him up in his hi-viz jacket. And into the box the bird went.  I took him back inside. The poor little thing kept opening his beak for me. “Please try to feed him,” London Wildlife told me. “Go down to Tesco and get some wet cat food and put little morsels into his beak.” This was beginning to get farce-like. But of course I obeyed, I was in too deep now. I was pretty bad at it. Not sure how much of that disgusting paste actually made it into his mouth. But I tried at least. “We aren’t going to be able to get to you anytime soon,” was the next message. “Could you get him to us?” This is London. Of course I can get him to you. “Can I put him in  a cab?” I asked. Of course I could. This is a London bird, after all. Cabs are a way of life. Taxi called, driver slightly nervous, but willing. And off he went. “Thank you,” was the text I received 35 minutes later. ” Thank you for rescuing this baby blackbird. He arrived in a fine and lively state.”  So that was job done. And 3 hours gone. The tennis!

davI rushed off to One New Change. Venus had to win now. I had saved a bird!!! Me! Yes, so unlikely. But I had done it. Now to the tennis! At One New Change. This marvel of glass and steel, designed by French architect, Jean Nouvel opened in 2010. It was constructed as an homage to Christopher Wren, the genius behind St Paul’s Cathedral, my favourite place on earth. One New Change affords a perfect view of the Cathedral from many angles, but because it is a structure more of space and light than form, it doesn’t loom, it shimmers, almost blending into the sky. It is sometimes referred to as the “stealth bomber,” you can’t see it, but from it you can see everything.

The 6th floor roof terrace stretches outwards for stunning views over the city, the Old Bailey and Grey Friars in the foreground. But it is the dome of the Cathedral that takes center stage. Breathtaking.  Accessible by a great glass elevator to make Roald Dahl fans swoon. Many years ago, I went along on a Sunday to take some photos of the view. In the elevator with me was a woman and her disabled son. As the elevator began to rise the boy got more and more excited. “I am Charlie, I am Charlie.” he shouted. When we reached the top they didn’t get out. “We will ride up and down being Charlie for a while now,” the mother told me. Never mind the view, the joy of that little boy makes this the loveliest building ever. And since at least 2012, the terrace has played host to Wimbledon lovers. A big screen television is put up, with the dome of St Paul’s floating in the background.  Giant Union Jack cushions and deck chairs are scattered about for viewing comfort. All free. Food and drink from other venues encouraged, though in more recent years a little bar has been set up. Often I would have the place almost to myself. But word has gotten out. And this was the women’s final. By the time I got there the place was packed. And Nandos was doing a delivery service. The queue for the bar was sizeable. I manage to find a little patch on the ground quite near the front and settled in for what I hoped was a triumph for my Venus.

Muguruza and Williams traded games, each holding their serve. Williams had two setdav points. And then she didn’t. The set slipped away. Then the match evaporated. She lost the second and final set 6-0. Yikes. Certainly not how I had envisioned it. Not how she had either, I am quite sure. But there it was. A rescued bird in a taxi, tennis overlooking St Paul’s, and a son extending his holiday in another great city. Unlikely, but true. Such is life, especially life in London. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On Jousting in the Sunshine…94/100

IMG-20170714-WA0000The weather in London has been glorious, beautiful for weeks now. What better way to enjoy it than a spot of jousting at Hampton Court Palace. As one does.

Jousting, when two men ride at each other carrying long lances and try to score points by hitting each other, rather like fencing on horseback. It is fast and furious and a sport of Kings. Henry VIII was a particularly keen jouster. It was during a jousting tournament at Greenwich Palace in 1536 that he got the injury to his thigh that would never heal cofproperly, become infected and torture him for the rest of his days. It is a dangerous sport, still so today. I had a nice chat with one of the competitors at the end. Last year, at this same event, he “was so broken,” (his words) that he was out of action of the rest of the year. Dangerous, but great fun to watch.

Henry VIII loved Hampton Court Palace and lavished money on the place, once he took it off Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. Banished for failing to get that divorce Henry so desperately wanted  from Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow and his wife of more than 20 years,  so he digcould marry Anne Boleyn. Anne was there today as well. In fact, a whole host of worthies filled the Royal Box. Wimbledon has their Royal Box, and a few favourites filled the one at Hampton Court for the tournament, including Thomas Cromwell, my great historical crush. He is a very good looking man indeed. And speaking of tennis, when the jousting was over (and I may or may not have been lurking about in a stalkerish manner) I overheard Henry invite Thomas  to play some tennis, a game Henry frequently davplayed on the grass courts he had built, (still in use today, refurbished, obviously) at the Palace.  He also installed two bowling alleys.  His jousting days were behind him by the time he occupied Hampton Court, but his competitive nature was not. Sport, in a gentler fashion, was still necessary. But I digress. Jousting.

Today’s competitors were Henry Grey, Henry Radcliffe, Francis Weston and George Boleyn. Sadly, two of these men will lose their heads soon….as will Anne and later on, Thomas. Historians speculate that part of Henry’s paranoia and rage, often resulting in the bloody machinations that make him famous, were caused by the limitations his injury put on his sporting life. Sport wasn’t just a past time for Henry, it was a passion, and without it he struggled, even more so the people around him. But today he sat back and enjoyed. He in his Royal Box

and me in a rather nifty historical deck chair. My children lounged on picnic blankets on the grass. The sun was out. The horses were gorgeous and high spirited. The palace buildings glistened in the background.

davThe jousting took the form of 2 runs between each competitor, for a total of 6 runs. Except Francis Weston insisted he get an extra go at George Boleyn and the Knight Marshal let him have it, twice actually. So it ended up two versus two, four times each. Misses, hits, points scored, lances shattered. That is a modern thing, the shattering. Back in the day, lances were solid. Spectators were familiar enough to see what touched where, at top speed, but no longer. We need things to blow up. So the lances are hollow and breakable and what a satisfying smacking sound they make when they clash. dig

 

IMG-20170714-WA0001The finalists on the day were George Boleyn and Henry Radcliffe. They had two passes. The first was a stunning lance to lance touch, a thing of rare beauty, so the commentator told us. 5 points each. But the next pass was a total miss. From one extreme to the other. Such is the nature of sport.

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Jousting isn’t just about the physical, manners and control count. The Knight Marshal deducted a point from Radcliffe for not being ready when called. The crowd groaned. He gave the point back for Radcliffe’s excellent handling of his horse. The crowd cheered. A draw. A happy finish to a happy day. For now. Storm clouds are gathering for many of those seated here today. And for us too. This balmy weather won’t last forever, so must take advantage while we can. And we did.

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We remained in the gardens and played in the sunshine. A band cofstarted up. We wandered over to a tent to find our merry Royals dancing. We stayed and watched. Thomas Cromwell may have smiled at me. Oh Thomas, 500 years is but a moment in time when in your presence. And jousting is a perfectly reasonable way to spend an sunny July afternoon in 2017.

Instagram: @mylondonpassion

 

 

On Sherlock and new friends…..93/100

mdeI knew I would have fun tonight. What I didn’t expect was to meet my best friend Ange in her male Jamaican version. And by that I mean that instant Vulcan mind meld. Just saying the name “Idris” leads to a spirited discussion of The Wire, complete with quotes, straight on to Cage aux Folles, (try and keep up please), a few asides about Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo and then back to mothers and children (didn’t I mention that before) , all under the sighing, patient gazes of a daughter and a long time girlfriend.  I only hope everyone else at the table had has much fun as we did.  But that is the beauty of the Literary Hour. No one is going to willingly attend a dinner party of strangers in a very out of the way terraced house in north London unless they have some joie de vive in them. And tonight there was plenty. In fact, to suggest that my new friend, Mick, and I had a monopoly on the merriment is mean spirited.  There was laughter from up and down the sizable table. We came to have a good time, and we did. Everyone.

cofI know, I have written about The Literary Hour before, in my post about dining in Naria. But this is my blog and I can repeat myself if I please. I wrote about the Northern Line twice. The Northern Line!! Twice!!! Surely I can talk about the best supper club around more than once. So, who is this Literary Hour?  A group of friends who decided  to cook and read to each other. And when they realized that that was rather fabulous, invited the public to join. I had forgotten how gorgeous it is to be read to.  Not listening to an audio book,  but to be read to.  By an actual person in the same room,  from an actual  book being held in hands. No wonder wise people are always going on about reading to children, it is,  it really, really is something special. Hearing those words delivered personally, just to you. I think I would show up pretty much anywhere if someone agreed to read to me. And to be given a delicious meal on top….well, how much luxury can a girl expect.

Tonight’s theme was Sherlock Holmes, the Arthur Conan Doyle one, not all the subsequentdav offerings. I have never read Doyle. Either has my daughter Lizzie, who shared the evening with me.  I know next to nothing about the character other than his cocaine addiction. Happily it didn’t matter. The passages read were in reference to the courses served. So it wasn’t plot that mattered but words. Oh how I love words. How I love gorgeous, full-bodied, fantastic words. Tonight, in one of the passages, a man was described as “confectious.” Oooh, my brain began instantly to sizzle with the knowledge that I too know several men I could call “confectious”. It isn’t a compliment,  by the way.

mdeBut what about the food, I hear you all saying. It is a dinner club, after all. Well the food was tremendous. Delicious. Fantastic. Starting with oysters and a Bloody Mary shot (a wedding breakfast), kedgeree,  a wonderful sampler of pates, quail stuffed with dates and then…..oh I do love a good sense of humour, a plastic syringe of froth with poppy seeds….”heroin?” one of the guests shouted out. Not quite, but a tasty little joke, nonetheless, though it did take us all  a bit of time to willingly shoot it into our mouths. Yeah, yeah…all the comments were made. Move on. There was also a mystery to solve. The murder of Irene Adler. The clues were clever but the culprit was obvious. Just the way I like it!

A lovely milk and honey tart to finish with coffee and tea on offer.  At which point Lizzie and I said good evening and started our long journey home. But wow, what a place London is. That I can attend a party completely across (and I mean far!) town as possible, be served incredibly delicious food prepared in a kitchen that must be a quarter of the size of my own, be read to,  BE READ TO, and meet people I instantly like so much that I stop talking and laughing only long enough to put food in my mouth, and am back home again before the midnight hour. But that is the genius of the Literary Hour supper club. Bringing people together with a shared passion for books, very good food and a sense of fun. How could it not be a great night. A really, really great night, indeed.

 

 

On Harry Potter and St. Paul’s….92/100

cofThe other day was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter book. No, this fact doesn’t make me feel old. Instead, I am grateful that I have had 20 years of a life with Harry. Because I love these books. I am true believer, have been since the start. And so are my children who have grown up with the books, the audio, narrated by the stupendous Stephen Fry, and eventually the films. We really, really love the films. Our New Year’s Eve tradition is to watch them, one after the other. We have been to the Harry Potter-WarnerIMG_20160102_125348_edit Bros. studios, just north of London many, many times. It is a fantastic, magical place. The last time we were there we saw a marriage proposal…..on the Hogwart’s Express. Of course we have been photographed pushing a cart into Platform 9-3/4  at King’s Cross. I can point out the entrance to Diagon Alley in Leadenhall Market and that opening scene in Half Blood Prince with the Death Eaters Flying over and through Millennium Bridge makes me swell with pride, as I feel rather possessive of what I think is one of London’s mot beautiful locations. And then there is the St. Paul’s connection.

 

I love St. Paul’s.  It is the most gorgeous building in the world, and lucky, lucky me gets to work their as an official guide, every week. Built by the great St Christopher Wren between 1675-1710 after the Great Fire of London left the previous St Paul’s in a ruinous state, the Cathedral is awe-inspiring, it is perfection in stone and light. And then there is the Harry Potter connection…..

IMG_3022The Dean’s Staircase, also knowns as the Geometric Staircase, was built, in the south tower, on Wren’s request, by William Kempster between 1704/05. It connects the floor of the Cathedral to the Triforium, an attic like space between the inner wall of the nave and the outer screen wall of the cathedral, which among other things, contains the library. It is 88 steps of sheer marvelousness; the stairs seem to float. When I stand on the landing at the top I feel like nothing is actually supporting me, a sensation I distinctly dislike and I  am too afraid to get close to the edge. So my photos of it from above are always rubbish. But it is beautiful. Incredibly, dazzlingly beautiful. Wren was so pleased with the final result he gave Kempster of bonus of 20 guineas.  Google wouldn’t give me an exchange rate from 1705, so I am going to guess the spending power was about 200 pounds. Not a bad tip.

300 years on it is the staircase to Professor Trelawney’s  studio of Divination. Emma Thompson’s character, the one everyone thinks is crazy but turns out to be right, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It is also in the final installation of HP, Deathly Hallows Part  2, though the railing is made plain in the scene. Harry is going up to search mdefor Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem and Ron is heading down, wand out, ready to fight. They stop on the stairs and exchange a few words.

Harry Potter isn’t the only film to feature this special space. It is also in the opening scene of Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. runs down and down and down the staircase, they make it seem much longer, to rescue a woman who is tied to a table in a room that is clearly not St Paul’s. Ah, the magic of movies. Recently the cathedral was closed for the filming of Paddington 2…please, please let our favourite bear get into serious mischief on these stairs. Maybe rivers of marmalade cascading down from the top? Back in 2010, sculptor Antony Gormley created a piece specifically for the Geometric Staircase, a falling figure in a dense cloud of wire, entitled Flare II. As Gormley explained at the time, “Wren understood proportion, space and gravitational dynamics as no other British architect of his time, and the Geometric Staircase is a supreme and elegant outcome of this understanding. Flare II is my attempt to use applied geometry to construct an energy field describing a human space in space.” Stunning.

davBut all of St. Paul’s is stunning. My passion for the place is only matched by my passion for sharing it with others. So it was an honour and a privilege when the Cathedral recently asked me to yap away about the American Memorial Chapel and Billy Fiske for PBS, the American television station, for their series on English cathedrals. I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled. And I loved every second of it. Of course, I may end up on the editing floor, but I hope at least my glovedcof hand pointing out Glenn Miller’s name (the  musician and band leader) in the Roll of Honour in the Chapel will make it to air. Why is he there? Because he is one of the 28,000 Americans who died in World War II having spent time in Britain. Miller was on his way from the UK to France when his plane disappeared over the English Channel on 15 December, 1944. And what about the other man I mentioned? Billy Fiske. The first American to fight and die in WWII. A short life, but an incredible one, but I say no more. You 10960180_1052030951490292_6522425843146799131_owill have to wait for the  PBS show, due next summer. Better yet, come visit me at St. Paul’s. I will show you Fiske’s pilot wings and tell you all about him.  I will show you Prof. Trelawney’s stairs too. And so much more. I will wear sparkly shoes. You will be enchanted.

 

On the Serpentine Pavilion….91/100

IMG-20170622-WA0015I’ve got (another) confession to make……no, no don’t worry, I am not about to burst into song, much as I love Dave Grohl. But it is a serious confession. I have never been to the Serpentine Pavilion before. Pause. I hear the gasps of shock, of incredulity. Yes, I know it seems so “my kind of thing,” but there it is. Never made it before. In my own small defense, this time of year, when the new Pavilion is unveiled, is the busiest, and I mean really, really, really busy, time of year for any SW London mother of school age children. Christmastime is dull in comparison. End of term, end of school, new school, summer birthdays, celebrations, showcases of talent, just one last party, just one more last party….oh and the summer fetes, maybe a street party or two, toss in some badly timed visitors….it is a nonstop carousel of child-based, though sometimes only tangentially, activities. It is enough to make even the hardiest of us weep with exhaustion.. I am forever murmuring Velvet Underground “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years….”. But this year I showed up,  mainly because I got invited to the preview, and I love exclusivity.  So off, on a gorgeous, balmy, London summer evening, I went.

What is the Serpentine Pavilion, I hear you ask? Well, it is privilege, an honour, bestowed on an international architect whose work has yet to be built in the UK. The annual commission began in 2000 with Zaha Hadid, who, as we all know, went onto architectural superstardom and died, suddenly, last year. A temporary “pavilion,” in whatever form the artist sees fit, is constructed on the Serpentine Gallery lawn and stays for the summer months. Free to the public, visitors are welcome to explore, photograph or just enjoy the structure. It is an opportunity for the Serpentine to showcase talent people here might otherwise not experience. And of course, it is an excellent excuse for an outdoor cocktail party in the still shiny light of late June London.

These year’s commission was given to Diébédo Francis Kéré, now living in Berlin, but originally from Burkina Faso. His structure is reminiscent of the tree that served as the central meeting point in his home town, a gathering place for the community. A place to IMG-20170622-WA0014rest or chat or just hang out. And that is exactly what he has built. Made of wood, obviously, it’s a tree, with blue, triangular panels, patterned to the touch, like a bark. A roof that stretches out like leaf laden, shade giving branches. Inside is a warm, cozy atmosphere, rather like a sophisticated fort made in the woods. But with benches and a bar. And a great little wooden slide.  In the center is what can be a waterfall, when it rains. But rain isn’t something we have had in quite a while here in blazing hot London, so the well was definitely dry on opening night.

IMG-20170622-WA0021Art previews are always a fabulous people watching opportunity, the outfits, the ages, the sheer exuberance of life, all the more so when the architect himself is present. “Oh, I would like to meet him,” I told some in-the-know gentlemen. “But of course,” and that is how I came to have a little cuddle and a picture. He was completely charming, and when the Artistic Director of the Serpentine tried to drag him away to meet more worthy patrons, he said “not yet, I am having my picture taken.” So Mr. Hans-Ulrich Obrist and another guest had no choice but to hop into our photo as well.IMG-20170622-WA0029

A beautiful pavilion, an utterly divine architect and a gorgeous summer night…why haven’t I been doing this for years?

On the Summer Solstice and London Commons….90/100

cofI suppose THE place to be on the summer solstice is Stonehenge. But I loath Stonehenge. My youngest drew a picture of me being sad at Stonehenge a few years ago, when yet another American guest demanded to visit. The drawing hangs proudly on the refrigerator. Why do I hate it so? Because it is just a bunch of rocks. In a field. That takes 2 very very very long hours to get to from my house, a journey that feels even longer as it shouldn’t take that long at all. If only all those idiot gawkers on the 303 didn’t make the traffic crawl along. Actually it doesn’t even crawl. It stands still, with occasional bursts of forward movement. And no, it isn’t a Druid site. The Victorians made that up. So you put all those ridiculous costumes away. (it is actually much older ….but I just can’t muster any enthusiasm…). However, the summer solstice I do love. The longest day of the year in a country that can often be dark and cold. And what better place to spend it than with Alice on the Common.

DSC_0017_18 (2)London is a very green city. Surprisingly green when you read the stats. Of course there are the 8 beautiful Royal Parks, which would have all been royal hunting grounds back in their day, and cover almost 5,000 acres in Greater London.  But the Commons are for the people, hence the name, a place where people could have grazed their sheep. I googled the total acreage in London and got a long list of public green spaces with the footnote that other large, green spaces are recognized under a different Commons Act….suffice to say, London has a lot of protected, common land. And while the sheep may have gone, we don’t need the land any less. In fact, given the closeness that is modern urban living, we need them even more. Down here in SW London, everyone uses the Commons. Dog walkers, exercise clubs, cyclists, football leagues of all ages, cricket, lots of cricket. Rugby too. Families, teenagers, runners, power walkers, packs of chattering women holding takeaway coffees.  My youngest had a lacrosse training session on Wandsworth Common last Sunday. All the local schools use the Commons for games, coffor matches, running children round. And in the hot weather people just lay themselves down, anywhere, and soak up the rays. I have always lived near a Common, in London. Our first house was close to Wandsworth Common. Our second equidistant between Wandsworth and Tooting Bec. Now we live just off Tooting Bec Common, a sprawling area of green that even boasts its own Lido. That is an outdoor, public swimming pool to my non-UK friends. Clapham Common is only up the road and I have run more races round it than I can count. These three Commons are a reason that southwest London is such a desirable place for families to live. Maintained by the local council, these spaces are taken seriously by local residents. Very seriously. Recently, CrossRail   (a new speedy railway) development threatened a corner of Wandsworth Common……wow, I have never seen residents so angry, so motivated, so engaged. No way was that going to happen. And by use of all democratic processes available, it didn’t. Thankfully.

sdrSo when Alice suggested we meet up, in the evening, on the Common, Wandsworth Common, how could I say no. We bought gin and tonics from the Hope Pub and carrieddig them across the street, you are allowed to do that here. Flopped down on the rather parched grass, it has been hot, hot, hot lately, with Alice’s gorgeous dog Peppa next to us.  We watched a game of softball played by two London Adult Mixed Softball League teams, strangers all. The level of skill was impressive from these Brits. We mdecheered for both sides. And we set the world to rights. For hours. The sun stayed out….and eventually turned the sky to that amazing inky blue.

Stonehenge can remain the venue for misinformed, historically inaccurate, aging hippies. Southwest London, on the Common, is the truly perfect location for the solstice, and perfect it was.

 

On Smashing Plates…89/100

davOne of the great things about living abroad for so long is the opportunity to blend cultures. Sometimes the mix is, well, excuse the pun, but sometimes the mix is SMASHING!

In August of 2012, while the older two were away at a Scottish outdoor adventure camp, I took the younger two to Mull, an island off the west coast of Scotland, better known to most of us as Balamory. Yes, those colourful houses on the water do exist, in fact it is a beautiful place,  rugged and hilly with lots of art everywhere, but I digress. While on Balamory, a summer fete in honour of the RNLI (Lifeboats) coftook place and one of the restaurants on the water was getting rid of their old place settings. They set the stuff up on wooden shelves and for few coins you could hurl cricket balls at the plates and bowls….and well, is there anything quite so satisfying as the sound of breaking crockery. I knew instantly that this would be the perfect THE PERFECT stall for me to run at the annual Northcote Lodge Summer Fair, the gorgeous English prep school both my boys attended, at the time. And run it I did…for 5 consecutive Fairs.

On a serious note, a very good friend of mine, a Vicar who also runs an organization to help adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, told me recently that they often set up a crockery smashing pit at their retreats. When asked if participants would like to donate money or just bring crockery to break they inevitably choose the latter. There is just something so satisfying, cathartic even, about it.

davBut where, I hear you saying, is the American twist. Aaahh….do you remember my post three back, when I told the tale of London baseball. At my plate smashing stall we don’t use cricket balls. I drag the enormous canvas sack of old baseballs and softballs out of the basement. The kids are fascinated. Yes, they have seen them in the movies, but to hold an actual one in their hands is a novelty. They are especially taken with the softballs. I don’t bother to explain the difference, size is all that matters at this age. Remember also in that same post how I explained that all 4 of my children have played up at Wormwood Scrubs, year after year after year. What I may have left out is that for many years, they often played on two teams, each, simulataneously. The junior team in the morning and the seniors in the afternoon. Now take a moment and do the maths. How many team jerseys (of various sizes) and caps do you think I have had in my house. Oh, yeah, and my husband often coached all these teams and had swag as well. What a perfect way to recycle all this stuff, as prizes. Prizes just for participating. How American is that!  I can’t lie. There is something so privately pleasing about looking round at the end of the Fair and seeing boy after boy after boy wearing an American baseball team jersey or cap.

13433356_1375691929124191_2703113526929270780_o3 years ago someone donated a Frozen mug. The boys went crazy trying to break it. Suddenly there was target above all the others. It took a while, but someone finally did get it, to the cheers of all his schoolmates. Last year it was a One Direction mug that caused the frenzy, and because there is justice in my little corner of America that is the plate smashing stall, a very quiet and shy boy won the honour. Hero for the evening.

 

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This year I outdid myself. As a joke, I promise as a joke, someone at the office gave Craig a Trump 2016 coffee cup. It was enormous. Of course it was. Craig gavecof it to our older son Joseph, who posted photos of it on social media and got the insane response from his friends he hoped for. But that was back in February, so I convinced him that the joke was long over and it was now my turn to have a little fun. And destroy it. The reaction was incredible. You could have been excused for thinking you were at a Make America Great Again rally for all the chanting of Trump, Trump, Trump as each youngster stepped up, baseballs at the ready, hoping to be the one to give it the final blow. I must admit, it took a long, long time. Ole golden Donny T proved to be rather indestructible as ball after ball, tumble aftedavr tumble, left it unscathed. But finally it happened, and again justice was meted out, as it wasn’t one of the older, stronger boys,  one of those who had been baying for its blood, but a young one, named Finn. He was thrilled, beyond thrilled. He asked for the pieces which I put carefully into a plastic bag to take home. What he parents thought of it all I have no idea. Nor do I care. My game, my rules. And I love it.

 

Speaking of the parents, the school wisely keeps my stall in the cricket nets (covered in tarpaulin) in the lower playground. The Bar (of course there is alcohol at the school fair, this is England, parents wouldn’t come otherwise) in the upper playground. Therefore, there is obviously no need for them to ever wander down and see the potentially dangerous (those shards fly!) activity their precious son is engaged in. And I am happy to report that in the 5 years I am the only one to ever be injured. I always manage to cut myself on something, but a small price to pay. Occasionally a Dad will come along, bolstered by rose in the sun, and ask to play. I always warn them they will only embarrass themselves. A cricket bowl doesn’t do much when trying to break stuff on a shelf, as the ball goes down rather than straight, and while the boys can manage to adjust, the Dads can’t. Usually they just miss entirely. This year, a father managed to hit a teacher who was foolishly poking his head round the side. I was totally unsympathetic. I told you so, I said to them both13482916_1375692019124182_4454196663676850203_o. They sheepishly returned to the bar, where they belonged.

This past Friday night was my last time as the Northcote Plate Smashing Queen because Stephen is moving on to secondary school. But I certainly went out with a bang. How I managed to get away with it, there isn’t anything health and safety about it, I don’t know.  But boy did the boys love it. Boy did I love it. And for two short hours  that nagging existential question: Why am I here? was answered. My epithet may read “she let boys smash things,” and that would be very good indeed.

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On the House of Dreams…88/100

davI keep a pretty, fabric covered file box in which I collect all the pages ripped from magazines and newspapers of things I desperately wish to see. The write-up about the House of Dreams from Time Out is so old it is crumpled and the edges have ripped away. This incredible homage to life is tucked quietly away in East Dulwich and only open a few times a year, and never when I could make it. Until yesterday. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes. Was it what I expected? No. No, not at all. It was crazy and colourful and wild. It was also emotional, a house that has experienced grief, but ultimately it is a validation that life and love are worth celebrating.

Grief. Well there is certainly plenty of that going round London at the moment. Two terror attacks, the after effects of Manchester and then the Grenfell Tower fire. A tragedy so shocking, so horrific, it doesn’t seem possible in the year 2017, in a major world capital. And yet it happened. And the reactions of the politicians, of all stripes, has been mind blowing in its collective paucity. Only the Queen managed to give the people what they want, what they need. But then, that is why she is the Queen. People themselves, of course, have responded tremendously. Even pop star Rita Ora was lugging packs of water. But the full-scale of this misery hasn’t yet been realized. And years of questions, anger and grief await. This was also the weekend that the widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox, the one who said more unites us than divides us, asked the UK to hold street parties to show a little love to our neighbours. Apparently,  over 100,000 such events took place yesterday and today. I am sure the fact that the weather has been unusually warm, sweltering actually, helped add to the good humour that comes of people being together. We seem to know the direction we need to go, even if our so-called leaders haven’t a clue.  The House of Dreams was therefore a perfectly timed experience as it  makes you realize that life isn’t always measured in the big and the grand, but more often in those small moments we make our own.

This house, the whole house,  except for a tiny bit of personal space upstairs, on ancof otherwise nondescript south London street,  is an art installation. It is the brain child of Stephen Wright, a successful fashion and textile designer who, in 1998, began creating a safe, magical space away from the overwhelmingness of London, with his then partner Donald Jones. Gaudi-esque mosaics inside and out, collages and assemblages using souvenirs, toys, relics of daily living. An Aladdin’s cave of things most of us throw away, but only after we have kept them preciously.

On Christmas Eve 2004 Donald died. Soon afterwards, Stephen’s father and mother also died. The 3 most important people in Wright’s  life gone within the space of 18 months. How does one begin to rebuild after this grief? How does an artist begin to rebuild? By building, of course. Not a shrine to the dead, so much, but a shrine to life. To lives that have been lived, lives filled with laughter, filled with love. The entry hall is covered in writing. In fact there is writing throughout the house. Not horrible, pithy, meme-esque clichés, but thoughtful, often funny, sentences. In this front hall is a long passage, taken straight from Wright’s diary, about Donald’s death in hospital and subsequent funeral. To say it packs a serious punch is an understatement. He was asked if he was afraid to see Donald’s body laid out. Why, he responded, I was never afraid of him before. Why would I be now.

cof10 years ago, Stephen met his current partner, Michael Vaughan. Michael doesn’t contribute directly to the installation, but provides endless emotional and intellectual support, though, it might be fair to say that his thoughts on the project are sometimes different from Stephen’s. In a lovely 14 minute video about the house, there is a wonderful scene where Stephen brings home some old curlers from a car boot sale and Michael suggests they go straight into a strong solution of bleach. No, no Stephen insists, he wants them to retain the strands of hair, evidence of the person who has used them, proof of the life they touched. And that is what the house has become, evidence of being, of having been. People he has known, and recently, more often, strangers. Isn’t that what we all want at the end of the day, for someone else out there in the world to say: you lived and you mattered and I  will miss you forever.

Stephen and Michael do all the meeting and greeting and chatting themselves. They arecof utterly, utterly, utterly charming, like men of a certain age often are. Welcoming and kind, they are a  couple you could easily spend hours and hours with, sitting in their lush back garden, enjoying soft cheese and crisp wine and laughing, laughing and laughing while solving all world problems. The property has already been promised to the National Trust, and while it will no doubt preserve the House beautifully, the absence of these divine hosts will be noticeable.

I honoured their request not to take pictures inside, it is their home after all, though was allowed to snap away in the gardens. Truthfully, my feeble photographic attempts would not have done the interiors justice, and they deserve to be experienced first hand.  The front garden is concealed from the street by blue boards. You push open the door and viola….you are in a magical land, made all the more so on my visit by the strong London sunshine which cast everything in an ethereal glow. Mosaics, sculptures, lush greenery davand one of the best two lines I have ever read. In fact, if I were a mantra kind of girl this would be it:

I want an Adventure

My life could have been like that. But it’s like this.

The back garden isn’t as filled with art work, instead it is a garden so full you could be excused for forgetting you are in London at all. As Michael explained, there used to a garden centre at the end of the road and obviously it was nearly impossible to walk by without seeing something irresistible. Perhaps that captures the essence of the House of cofDreams, and of the artist himself. Wright can’t walk through his days without seeing something irresistible, extraordinary, dreamlike, sentimental in things we otherwise might no longer notice. Baby dolls, ceramic tiles, reading glasses, glass beads, old shoes, his father’s false teeth, and I swear, as you walk round you can hear them whispering…look at us, look at us, look at us. WE REMAIN.

 

 

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