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.



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.



Instagram: @mylondonpassion



On Borough Market…& food for the soul 87/100

IMG_20160325_134702Oh how I love Borough Market. How my husband loves Borough Market. In fact, it may be the single thing in London he really, really likes, as he finds my beloved city loud, crowded, dirty, inconvenient and ridiculously expensive. All of which is true. But I love it still. And Borough Market is certainly top of the list. I would never consider myself a foodie, far from actually, but there is something about the quality and the beauty of the market that makes it irresistible. It lulls you into believing you can cook anything, turn every meal into a feast, excite every taste possible. I have davstruggled home with bulging sacks filled with fruit and vegetables, not the boring kinds but the good stuff: artichokes, figs, pomegrantes, mushrooms. Once I decided that I had to have a dozen blood oranges too. Certianly appreciated by my family, but bloody heavy to carry home. Cheeses, saucisson with hazelnuts, Spanish ham, olives, bread, fish, exotic meats, cake, licorice, everything that looks good, and it all looks good. Why I haven’t written about it before, I don’t know. But now is certainly the time. Sadly, sadly now is the time. Following the devastating terror attack, the market was closed for 11 days. But it has reopened, and I was there.

cofThere has been a market, in one form or another, at London Bridge, for at least 1,000 years. Over the centuries, and more recently, the decades, the market’s size and success has waxed and wained, and by the 1970’s the growth of the supermarket made the market obsolete. But nothing this good could be gone forever. In the 1990s the interest in local and artisan foods began to grow. A collection of traders met once a month, then once a week and now the Market is open Monday-Saturday and has stalls from all overIMG_20160325_135011 the UK and Europe. A quick glance down the current trader list includes Spanish cheese, vegetarian pasties made with Balkan recipes, French pastries, olives from Greece, Turkish condiments, Oysters from Essex and  charcuterie from south Wales…you get the idea. It is a destination for anyone interested in food of any kind. It is also a popular spot for after work drinks and dinner. A gorgeous place to spend a warm Saturday night. Hence the horror that took place there only two weeks ago. And why I had to go back as quickly as I could.

davThis time I wanted to be a little more organized than usual, not just roam round and grab anything and everthing that appealed. I wanted to prepare something exclusively sourced. Given how hot the weather has been, I decided on a salad, a gorgeous, colourful summer salad. A Borough Market salad. I chatted with vendors, all of whom were so happy to be back at work. “Everyone is coming with so much love,” the adorable olive seller told me. The market was crowded, but less so than I have seen before. Everyone was taking pictures. Not just the hideous selfie versions, or artistically arranged piles of peppers, but of the market itself, as if people wanted to prove that life was continuing on. I shared my idea of the salad and got great suggestions. In the end, I made something really rather beautiful. And delicious. Rocket, bibs of many colours, tomatoes  in all their many, many shades of sunset, black olives and violets. A treat for the eye and the stomach. Made with so much love, food for the soul.

Instagram: @mylondonpassion

On London Baseball…if you build it, they will come…..86/100

cofBaseball. If you build it they will come. A field in Iowa. Or a west London prison. Build it and bats will sing out. Every year I dread the start of the London baseball season (it’s inconvenient, time consuming and cold,) but by the end, find a grudging affection, if not respect and love, for what these crazy Americans manage to put together year after year after year. On the playing fields of Wormword Scrubs, a category B facility. And a hideously run down Athletics complex. It boasts its own weather system, different to whatever else may be taking place in London. Usually cloudy, often damp,  though actual pouring rain is rare. Cold, regardless of the sunshine. And the wind. Oh the wind. Frenzied, relentless wind. All the time. Which makes it very easy, on those treasured days of full sun, to get mdebadly burned. Ones core remains swaddled in trousers and jackets and blankets, but  feet and noses and arms exposed to the piercing rays. It happens to me every year. And every year I am shocked. But then, baseball at the Scrubs (what the cool kids call it) does have an element of Groundhog Day.

My children have been playing up there since we first moved to London, almost 13 years ago.  When there was nothing but packs of over excited children and a few bats and balls.  It has grown more sophisticated over time. Not just equipment wise, but a chain coffee van arrived a few years ago, changing the atmosphere of the place forever. Suddenly a day at the Scrubs wasn’t quite so devoid of luxury. A BBQ tent arrived soon after. Then a vendor of American “food” (100% junk) and this year, one enterprising mother set up a Philly Chilly business. The queues went on forever. Her veggie chilly topped with guancamole is sublime.

mdeBack in those early days everyone and I mean everyone was at the American School of London and lived in St. John’s Wood. They were here for one, two years tops. Their experience was exclusively of the insulated ex-pat variety. Except us, or so it seemed. We were the freaks who lived south of the river and sent their kids to be educated with the English. But times have changed. More and more of the families live all over London, some even further south than us! The children go to English schools and play English sports and have English accents, for lots of reasons, including the slashing of perks by American companies, and the number of families who are long-term residents. And many more mixed nationalities, with the American parent (of either sex) being the driving force for joining the baseball. And mdesometimes not even that. One of the most involved families at the moment is German/Italian. Why? No clue.  But boy can their boys play! And the particularly beautiful thing about this is that now it really is LONDON baseball. Kids chat about football and cricket. They mix sports terminology. They recognized each other from other things. It is American, with international flavouring.



The fields themselves are vast and baseball takes only the middle portion. League football, for all ages, happens round the edges. One corner is the exclusive domain of model airplane flyers. Sometimes the athletics track is in use. The small area with a variety of exercise bars is always full of shirtless young men, showing off their strength. Dogs and their owners are everywhere and it is not uncommon for play to stop because cofand animal has suddenly appeared between first and second base. I always wonder what the locals make of this highly organized but totally alien activity taking over such a large section of the Scrubs. Sometimes they stop and watch. Mostly they ignore it and carry on along. They are Londoners after all. The Scrubs is remote, or as remote as one can get in a major city. Set well behind the prison and a collection of hospitals, it is a long walk from the main road. Yet one morning, last year, we arrived to find a man sleeping one off just behind what was going to be the home run fence for my younger daughter’s softballdav game. We just left him there. He did finally come to, in about the 4th inning, and just shuffled away. Must have been quite the night! And to wake to find oneself in the middle of a ball game, well that is a tale for the lads. A few years ago two burnt out cars were on the fields, police all round. This meant that games had to be moved over to one side, but no one complained. Kids (and adults) were fascinated by the scene. Speculation and rumour was rampant. So exciting.

I have a clear memory of walking my newborn 4th child, Katherine,  around during one of those horrible rainy, sleety storms London can have, wondering why in the world I had agreed to come. For years I avoided going as much as I could, limited myself to just driving husband and children up and back and up and back (it is NOT a convenient location to where we live), sometimes not even getting out of the car.  I wasn’t missed. London Baseball was, and remains, a world of Dads. American (for the most part) Dads who, again for the most part, are the serious players in the City (why else are they here). Yet they make time for this. Lots and lots of time. One Saturday my husband arrived to cofcoach with his suitcase in tow. The taxi came to get him to his flight to Australia (business, not pleasure) before the last out. And he isn’t the only one. Plenty have shown up straight off a flight from Frankfurt, NYC, Singapore, Tokyo, LA  or any other place important men happen to go. Bleary-eyed but willing. Their dedication is extraordinary. Humbling, even. They are fathers at their absolute best. Well most of them anyway. A few of these important men are pretty awful. Their behavior in front of their, and other people’s children, inexcusable. Their need to win (correction, their need for their 11 year old to win) beggars belief. But there aren’t many of those. And, of course, they provide hours of gossip for the rest of us.

Yes, there are mothers there too. But even the softball coaches are predominantly men. mdeIts a Dads thing. We are just the cheering section. Thankfully. Because I am hopeless. I can’t throw or catch or hit. The idea of someone hurling a hard ball at me, at my request, is absurd. My understanding of the rules is basic. My attention wanders. I am always cold. ALWAYS. But, once I get there, I do love watching.

mdeIt is a full compliment of experience and my husband and children have done it all. Starting with T-ball, moving up to coaches pitch, then the junior softball and baseball and now, finally the seniors. But that T-ball. It requires a patience most of these men didndav‘t know they had. But have they do. These diddy little things, jerseys all down to their knees. No clue how to throw or catch or if either of those actions are really necessary. Lots of tears (actually, the tears last, for both the boys and girls, right up to the end). Kids lie down, they wander off, they chat. They run the wrong way. Or not at all. But outs remain uncounted and every game ends in a tie. A game of endurance over skill. Yet these men do it (my own husband did it for years), with enthusiasm.

cofOver time, attention focuses, skills are honed, games are played, plays are made, fly balls caught, strike outs, stolen bases, home runs. Proper competition. Sadly, it ends at age 13. After that, it becomes another organization and it gets serious. Or rather, the Dads getmde serious. Really, really serious. And the promise of a trip to Poland for a place in the Little League World Series gets adult hearts pumping. And grown men fighting, sometimes literally. But that is for the true-believers, like mine, but not me. I am happy to stay at the Scrubs.

Next year, only my youngest Katherine will be eligible to play. I will be down from  four games to try and watch to just one.  But watch I will. On ground where children call the games “matches” and even the Commissioners refer to the field as the “pitch.” Where the weather, even when nice, is awful. Where you can never, ever, ever, ever ask someone to shag the balls (means soooo something else entirely). And where I grudgingly settle into a rickety lawn chair


with a very faded St George’s Cross, purchased for 3 pounds at Tesco during a World Cup more than a decade ago, cold and windswept, with my takeaway coffee from the van,  and someone else’s dog at my feet, watching fathers spending time with their children,  and admiring kids of a mix of nationalities playing the greatest of all the American games. Aah, what it is to be an American in London. Or as they say here: See you at the Scrubs.


On Noses….they are watching you….85/100

cofOn Tuesday night I was supposed to join Secret London Runs (the cleverest and most fun running company out there) to find the hidden noses of Soho followed by some pub conviviality. But it was rcofaining. Hard. It was cold. I was tired. And I am a terrible map reader (no wonder I only guide inside), I can’t even follow google map instructions properly. Getting lost in a cold hard rain while running isn’t fun. So I made my (pathetic) excuses and stayed home. But the lure of the noses had me. And getting lost while strolling on a sunny, warm Saturday morning is bliss. Not least because I absolutely LOVE the morning after the night before in big cities. When the streets are devoid of people but the detritus of nighttime fun is everywhere, Show me your filthy doorways and your littered alleys. Hastily bagged rubbish and appallingly parked cars. Mysterious liquids running down pavement cracks. Dried vomit and pungent wee. Shuttered windows andsdr metal encased entrance ways. The silence. The stillness. The emptiness. I love it. You can walk in the middle of the road. Snap photos of street art without anyone tutting. Notice things you would otherwise never spot. A chance to look up and around. The perfect time to find a few noses.

What noses?? I can hear you all saying. Well, it turns out that there are 7 noses and 2 ears affixed to buildings in the Mall, Soho and the West End. About the same size as my own impressive honker, they have become a thing of mild urban legend. There are as many explanations for their existence to be found on the internet as, well, anything to be found on the internet. But I am going with it being a bit of a prank that has turned into a bit of fun. Nostalgic fun, as it may be. The story I am sticking to is that artist Rick Buckely molded these plaster of paris noses on his own and placed them about London, in 1997, to protest, discreetly and wittily, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. State survelliance. Nosiness (get it). There may have been 35 of them in total at the start, scattered throughout London as an art installation, and these are the 7 that remain, though two don’t fit the size or look of the others, so perhaps some additional artistic license has been used.  But no mind. A hunt for noses is a hunt for noses. And I found them all. The two ears too.

digEars?  They seem to be casts of the artist Tim Fishlock’s own ear. Why? When? What for? I haven’t a clue. Both on Floral Street. One attached to a Ted Baker shop, the other the Tintin shop. If there is a political or social message being made here, I missed it. Or else I am too worn out by the last election to care. But they are rather magnificent ears. Gorgeous helix of the auditory system. Certainly something worth smiling about. And smile I did. As I wondered about. In the early morning sunshine. Backtracking, diverting, enjoying a city stretching itself awake and taking on the day.

cofAnd all with a tremendous sense irony. Because I was hunting for what could be symbols of anti-big brother behavior in a city experiencing a heightened state of surveillance. Police, barriers, road blocks everywhere. The St. Anne’s church in Soho, which boasts a gay congregation,  had security out front  when I walked by.  I have no doubt that computers and cameras are working night and day to track people with terrible intent. And, one week on from the London Bridge/Borough Market attacks, that is exactly how we want it. Need it. digThis is the world we now live in. As I walked up Haymarket I noticed the London Welcome Everyone banners hanging from above, in a variety of languages. London: multicultural, international, the best city in the world, and site of yet another extremist attack. Freedom, of the monitored variety,  the plurality of modern living.

digBut let’s get back to the noses themselves. Found the first one on the Admiralty Arch. It took a while to find it, but once spotted I couldn’t believe I had ever passed under the arch, currently impossible, without seeing it. Another nose on Great Windmill Street and then into Soho. Oh what a rich past this area has. The oversized protuberance on Meard (one thought to have been added later) can’t quite compete with the history of this very short street of still existing  and stunning original 18cth Georgian townhouses, includingcof the one with the famous sign This is not a Brothel. Then on to D’Arblay Street where I worried the crowd outside the inexplictably popular Breakfast Club that I was trying to queue barge (as if!) to find what (to be honest) looked more like a bent screw than a nose. Peeked through an olive tree on Dean Street, loitered outside the Milkbar on Bateman and found the last nose on what was an otherwise totally uninspiring printshop store front on Endell Street. Equally fun were all the Invader pieces I found. A French street artist who creates 1980s video game creatures out of tiles and mounts them high up.

Then onto Floral Street and the fabulous ears. Ted Baker and Tintin. Lucky them.


It had been a lovely, entertaining morning. But with constant reminders of what had happened the previous Saturday. So before I headed home, I stopped into St Martin’s in the Fields. The beautiful 18th century church (having replaced at least two before it, dating back to Norman times) just across from Trafalgar Square. Currently, the nave is filled with hundreds of paper doves, folded by people in the community at large: church goers, late night revelers, visitors, people of all faiths and none. An art installation entitled Les Colombes by the German artist Michael Pendry. Doves are a symbol of peace, something so badly lacking right now. Suspended in flight, as sunlight streams through the windows,  it is a beautiful and humbling experience, full of hope. This is London.


On Hamlet…84/100

cofI  have loved Hamlet for a long time. Correction. I have loved a passage from Hamlet for a long time. Though I had no idea it was Hamlet. Because I thought it was a song. From the Hair soundtrack. Boy oh boy did I love that soundtrack. I discovered it in my parents collection when I was about 10. I played it constantly. I knew all the words to all the songs, especially that one that is just a list of naughty things. I could probably sing the album today. It is skill I  share with my best friend from university, Abby. She too spent hours of childhood entranced by Hair. Fast forward many decades. Imagine my surprise when I heard “what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason…” spoken, not sung, by Hamlet. Well no wonder it is a song I remember, it is lyrical, pure poetry.  Words that stick on your soul. Hamlet itself is a little harder to love.

I know it is one of Shakespeare’s greats, if not his greatest. It is supposedly the most performed play in the world. Apparently Hamlets are taking place all over all the time. But it isn’t an easy play. The characters aren’t all that likeable. Their motives aren’t always clear. It is confusing at best. And the end is a proper bloodbath. I have seen 5 productions of Hamlet, all in London. By the standards of my British friends, this is a paltry number of shows. But remember, I wasn’t educated in all things Shakespeare like they were, like my children are. I am a newcomer to the Shakespeare cult. Enthusiastic, certainly, but uneducated.

The first Hamlet I saw was dreadful. Starring the usually incredible Michael Sheen, it was set in a pyschiatrict hospital, which immediately undercut Hamlet’s own madness as everyone was mad. Loudly, ragingly, incoherently mad. And poor Ophelia was reduced to a shrieking wreck throwing pills around for what seemed like forever. Relentless misery. I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. By the end, I think there were only 10 of us left in the audience. We had stayed only because my friend was so heavily pregnant she felt too tired to move. At one point we both stared hopefully off to the side of the stage, wishing a crisp packet or sweet wrapper to roll by and distract us from the main action. I didn’t enjoy it, but I wasn’t  giving up.

A few years later the Globe announced their Hamlet world tour. Their plan to take a production of Hamlet all round the world and in 2 years try, as best as geo-political situations would allow, to perform in every country in the world. My daughter and I attended the first show, at Middle Temple. A simple stage, a clothes line and a few hats, the production was funny and rich and reverant in its understanding that the words are what matter. This one I enjoyed. A lot. The production really did tour the world, acting in theatres, villages squares, studio spaces, outdoor stadiums, and a tent in a refugee camp.  Two years on, the same daughter and I enjoyed the penultimate performance, back at the Globe. With the same cast now fully engrossed in their roles. I admired what I saw, but still found the play difficult.

Then came the famous Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet. Of course I went. My friend Mini managed incredible tickets in about the 3rd row. It was lavish. Magnificent. A triumph. Yet, I still cringed when Ophelia set about shrieking in the usual way, a way I don’t find at all convincing for what she is supposedly enduring. Hamlet the man stayed a mystery, why does he do what he does and why? Is he mad? Is he not? Does he mean what he is saying? Is there some essential sub-text I am missing? And what are all these other peole doing? But of course I enjoyed it. I went with the plot and let the gorgeous words flow over me. Flow over, but not through.

Friday night. Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. Suddenly, like a bolt out of the sky the words didn’t wash by, they penetrated. Deeply. I was transfixed. For almost 4 hours. This production, directed by Robert Icke, moved after spectacular reviews from the Almedia to the West End is sleek and modern, but without gimmick. The words still matter. In fact they matter even more, because I got them. Andrew Scott’s interpretation is so good he effortlessly bridges the gap between Shakespearen language and modern sensibilities. No longer was he some maybe mad man-child making lots of speeches, he became a fully formed human whose decisions, while not always good, made sense, and his self-expression personal, timely, vivid. It was as though he had written the words for himself, by himself.  In fact, all the characters made sense, even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  And Ophelia didn’t shriek. Her grief was tangible. And understandable. And quietly heartbreaking.  My brain was on fire. My soul filled. My eyes wet. Now  I get it, why it is that  this play written more than 400 years ago still resonants. Why it is the most performed play in the world. It captures so much of the human condition. That vengeful bloodbath at the end? Sadly,  that is pretty accurate as well. Now, I too am a Hamlet groupie. Thank you London. It took a while, but you have given me yet something else to love.


On Grayson Perry and the state of the world…83/100

cofSo here we are again.  Another election with vitriol, scare mongering and yap yap yap from all sides. Another shocking, horrific and desperately sad terror attack. And more rain. This seems to be an unbreakable pattern. But it does explain how I came to be standing in an impossibly long queue, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, on election night, only days after the London Bridge/Borough Market attacks, in the rain. Waiting to get into the preview of the Grayson Perry show: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! Well if nothing else in the world seemed certain, that did!  As we stood and stood and waited and waited.  “But I am on the guest list,” I spluttered when I arrived on the dot of 7 to find myself at the end of something I couldn’t see the beginning of. “I think all of London is on this guest list,” the man in front explained. The already overwhelmed security men just shrugged and gestured for me to take my place behind the others. So I did. It began to rain. And strangers began chatting. Soon it was all rather jolly, especially when waiters with trays of wine and fistfuls of beers began to appear. The attacks were mentioned only obliquely, as in “so glad so many people came out” and the election in passing, “so glad it will be over,” (ha ha, wishful thinking, as it turns out). We inched along (the gallery was working on a one-out-one-in policy) we talked about the weather (of course) and books (never a dull subject) and Harry Potter (so much to discuss) and art. Then a frisson in the crowd. The great man himself was approaching. Wearing fabulous shiny shoes and an impossibly short pink frock, his cyclist legs on full display. We were giddy. Camera phones clicking. He stopped by my group and surveyed the length of the queue and the patience with which we were all waiting. “You have made all my dreams come true,” he told us before he breezing on. Grayson Perry. A National Treasure. But to call him that seems too trivial, too patronizing, like patting the hand of an elderly relative. Because I believe, at this moment, in this crazy world we live in, Grayson Perry is a voice of reason and sense. And the size of the crowd trying to get into the Serpentine Gallery proves I am not alone in this belief.  He is known primarily as a ceramicist who likes to wear women’s clothes, whose work reflects the times we live in. Not a reinterpreted, through the lens of high culture, reflection, but the way it actually is. mdemdeWhich is why he is so popular, with the masses, if less so the elite. And he is funny, pointedly funny, with a fantastic laugh. In this new show he pokes fun at high brow culture with “luxury brands for social justice,” a large pot covered in drawings and pithy statements like: “I’m off to buy a serious piece of political art,” “I’ve read all the academic literature on empathy,” and my personal favourite “super expensive knick-knacks against fascism.” There were plenty of chuckles (and many winces) round that piece. His two pots on Brexit had been highly anticipated. Using suggestions via social media from people on either side of the debate as to what Britain means to them,  he created a Leave pot and a Remain one. And the joke on us all is that it takes time to figure out which is which….to quote Jo Cox, the MP murdered last year, “far more unites us than divides us.” A concept we seem neither able to embrace nor reject, but instead turn it over and around and back again as we make our way through these times. Because, as Perry suggests, there is a gap between how we feel and how we think. And when faced with decisions, we often go with feeling over thought, no matter the evidence that should make us choose otherwise. Sometimes, for that reason, bad things happen. But sometimes not.


All of this was very much on my mind when I went, the following day, to see the impromptu post-it note memorial to the recent terror attacks. Borough Market was still closed, police positioned all along its perimeter.  But that cement thing on the southeastern side of London Bridge was covered in messages, some small posters but sdrmostly post it notes, on which people have written messages. Messages of hope, of love, of sorrow. From all over the world, as were the victims: France, Spain, Canada, Australia. From places that are all too familiar with horror: sympathy from Lebanese journalists, love from Ukraine, hope from cofIran. And some messages that should never have to be written. “I miss you so much Sara love from Mum xxxxxx” People stood and read, took photos and cried, a few added their own messages. But mostly people just stood and read. In silence. The immediate area was eerily quiet. Somber and still. While the bustle that is London Bridge, station and streets carried on in the background. It was moving, overwhelming.

I crossed the bridge for a little emotional break. Admired the view down the river to the east: HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Tower of London.  Saw the new barriers between the road and the pavement. Police were everywhere. Two youngish men, who had obviously enjoyed a long and very liquid lunch, felt it necessary to overwhelm some officers with their affection. Shaking their hands, throwing their arms around them, declaring their respect and admiration. cofThe police were very patient, simply disentangled themselves and encouraged the gentlemen to stagger along. Oh, some things never change. And that is what Londoners keep saying to themselves post-terror. That London won’t fear, won’t give in, won’t divide. At times I worry that this attitude isn’t defiance so much as a form of passivity, that in saying we carry on, we normalize the events,  make them seem simply one more part of the urban fabric. Which is unacceptable. Because these attacks are unacceptable. And to treat them as cofanything but abhorrent is unacceptable. But the solutions are complicated. And in the meantime this is perhaps the best we can do. Feel more than think. Share thoughts on colourful squares of paper, stand in long queues to see art,  have a laugh with strangers, let the politicians bray on and know that sometimes the wisest man out there is wearing a very short pink dress.


On Feet in Fountains….82/100

cofWe are in the midst of a heatwave, here in London. “In other countries they just have the summertime. We have to talk about heat waves. It’s dreary,” so complains shrewish Nan in Iris Murdoch’s divine The Sandcastle. But she is wrong. Heat waves aren’t dreary. They are wonderful and hot. And it is hot right now. Hot, hot, hot. Desperate for a little relief, yesterday afternoon, I went to Trafalgar Square and put my feet in the fountain. For a long time. Yes, I did take a little break for some art in both the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, but I was back. Feet in the water. Sitting on the stone rim. Thinking about the world. About Monday night in Manchester. I do have many thoughts about the atrocities, but I am not sure I have the words to express them properly without sounding glib or superficial, such was the horror. So instead they remain a feeling that twists and turns, sharp and hard and present. But unutterable.

Mostly, however, I just sat. Trying to “be” as much ascof it is possible for me to just sit and be. Looking out at London. A city I love so so much. The place I love the most. For all its flaws, I would not want to be anywhere else during a heat wave.  Feet in that dirty ole fountain.  Music and traffic and people all round. In the blazing sunshine. I must be the luckiest woman in the world.

On the Pleasure of Popping…..81/100

cofI first discovered the verb “to pop,” many years ago, when I heard it in, what else?, Absolutely Fabulous. Eddie and Patsy are forever popping into Harvey Nichols on the way “to work.” Saffy has to pop out for some milk when she cancels the Harrods food delivery, in her brief attempt at austerity. Gran loves to pop by, causing Eddie to instantly regress to a sulky teenager.  It is a great word for a fantastic action. And London is the ideal place to pop. So many places, so many people, and with the world moving ever faster a quick pop is all we may be able to manage. It is a rediscovery of the small moments. The tiny breaks in reality that can not only provide rest, but perhaps, a whole new mood. A quick look at something beautiful. A short time under the sun in a secret garden. A few minutes with a friend. Not scheduled. Not planned. Not written in the diary. Just popping by. Because that is when the laughter is sudden and real. So it is what I plan to do over the next few months. And to what will I be popping? Art obviously.

cofLondon is the perfect city for this. Not only is there so much art, everywhere, all the time, as far as my new hot pink suede boots can walk me, it is, for the most part, free. FREE!!!! Not too much free around these days, so I plan to take advantage. So, 2 days ago after visiting a friend and realizing I was only one stop away from, I popped into the V&A.  To see just one thing. Or 4, things as it turned out. Or 4 things plus the things around. And for a few minutes I was utterly transfixed. Rachel Kneebone’s new installations at the V&A. Ceramic bodies, sometimes just legs, in fantastic collections, at times entwined, with vines and  leaves, as though emerging from the large eggs nestled in the background. So tactile and visceral and gorgeous. Displayed next to Rodin sculpture, works that also beg to be touched (though that is forbidden), the twisting bodies beautiful and mesmerizing.  The longer cofyou look, the more you see. And, at the front of the museum, Kneebone’s stunning tower, 399 Days, a Tower of Babel perhaps, or a series of physical vignettes, again in silky white porcelain. While 16th century statues of antiquity greats stand near, gazing at, reaching toward, engaging with her work. It is masterstroke of curatorial genius. The outside world just melted away as I stared and studied cofand sighed with pleasure. For a just a little while.

cofYesterday I popped into the RA, again to see just one thing. Andrew Green’s stunning and heartwarming installation The Life and Death of Miss Dupont. A beautiful homage to his mother and her loving second marriage to lobster salesman, Stan, They only had 15 years together before Stan died, but Andrew believes they were the happiest of her life. Widowhood didn’t suit her nearly so well. In the center she stands, not quite life sized, but wearing the actual fur coat Stan gave Madeleine during their marriage. I know attitudes  have changed, but there was a time when being given a fur coat was the highest expression of devotion possible. I remember well the Christmas when my father gave one to my mother, the pleasure and mdeexcitement was infectious. This effigy of Madeleine stands at a jaunty angle surround by touches of their home together, Peter the Poodle having a prominent role, and includes an acknowledgement that they greatly enjoyed the physical side of their relationship, not something most children are gracious or understanding enough to do (without retching anyway). The rest of the room is filled with other tributes, including the congratulatory telegram sent by her family to the restaurant where they dined after the ceremony . What looks like a large hat box topped with an elegant cut glass jar stands on one side. Two empty chairs are painted on the base. Immediately one is reminded of the heartbreaking song “Empty Tables and Empty Chairs” from Les Mis. And indeed the connection is correct, as this is the container the artist imagine his mother’s ashes should cofbe held in, rather than the plain, metal urn he was given. Even in death, his mother is elegant and beautiful and very, very loved. Much of the story was brought to life for me by the excellent guard in the room, Harsal, who generously and enthusiastically shared the joy of this piece, in all its gorgeous detail. Thinking back, it feels like I spent hours with Miss Dupoint. But I was there less than 15 minutes. I popped out to pop in and what a bit of magic I got.

Earlier in the week I popped into the Lisson Gallery to see the new Anish Kapoor show. I adore this artist, but don’t always appreciate everything he does. Didn’t carecof for the large sculptures in this collection. But always love the mirror work. So spent most of the few minutes I was in the gallery playing around with them. Managed what I think is a fun photo of my hands. And then got on with the rest of my day. With an extra warmth in my heart.

And now my lovely readers, I must leave you. A friend I haven’t seen in ages has just popped by. Let the talking begin…


On Strong Women, the Banquet of Life and Two Temple Place…80/100

cofSeveral days ago I went along to my friend Alice’s house to watch a bio pic of Peggy Guggenheim. I was very much looking forward to seeing what I thought might be a peek into my fantasy future….world famous art collector of the avant garde filling her stunning Venetian palace with treasures on the artistic and human variety. Parties, laughter, love. An enviable force for cultural advancement. Yikes was I wrong. Her life was horrible. Her family, her friends, herself….horrible, horrible, horrible. And so so very sad. I think I am still reeling. (Her sister Hazel throwing her babies off the roof….) With this still fresh in my mind, I met my marvelous friend Samuel at Two Temple Place. An incredible home on the Victoria Embankment built by William Waldorf Astor, in the 1890s. A rare case of limitless money and taste coming together perfectly. It is one of my favourite buildings in London. I  fantasize that someday I am going to buy it and live in it with artistic and literary splendor. Astor only used it for twenty five years. It is currently owned by the Bulldog Trust charity, but I could make it my own very quickly. The oak-paneled staircase alone sets my heart racing. Astor was a newspaper man who loved digliterature, The Three Musketeers most of all. Characters from Dumas’ novel stand proudly on the newel posts, joined by other favourites like Hester Prynne (another strong woman), the last Mohican, Uncas and scout Hawkeye.  The Great Room on the 1st floor offers reliefs and statuettes of more famous women, some real, some not, including Anne Boleyn, the Lady of Shalott and Maid Marion. The main door is covered in reliefs of the women of the Arthurian tales. There is no particular agenda to the choices, rather a collection of fictional and historical characters who appealed to Astor. Voltaire is there as are greats of the Renaissance, including Dante, Michelangelo and Raphael, the scientist Galileo and the explorers Columbus, Marco Polo and Captain Cook. Eclectic taste, yes, but excellent, eclectic taste. The ceiling is a jaw IMG_20160421_160402dropping open timber hammer-beam mahogany roof and at either end of the Hall are stunning stained glass windows, Sunset and Sunrise. Rich in colour, they are enormous, idealized landscapes. It is the kind of room that takes your breath away at first glance.  And then you start to look and the more you look, the more you see. It is pure pleasure.

Two Temple Place is closed much of the year, available as an event and location venue, but annually they put on an exhibition and invite the public in. I have gone to many over the years and, while I have enjoyed them, consider them to be more an excuse to see the house, the gorgeous, glorious house, my gorgeous, glorious house, than whatever the display cases hold at the time.  I wanted Samuel to see this house. We are on a Beautiful Homes in London mission and I knew he IMG_20160421_155512would immediately join me under the spell. I arrived early and popped up  to the gift shop to buy a ticket for a talk later in the week, but before I did I told the lovely volunteer that I was waiting for a friend. “Tell him I will be right down. His name is Samuel and he is fabulous. He will be wearing a cape.” She smiled appreciatively. And when I returned, there they were together. “I recognized fabulous Samuel straight away,” she told me. See, we belong here. And he loved the house, I knew he would. It is the kind of house that Mame would have loved too. We are both Auntie Mame devotees. We both understand completely when she despairs “life is a banquet, but most poor bastards are starving to death.” But not us. Samuel and I are greedy gluttons for life. And here, at Two Temple Place, we overindulge, yet again, in beauty. And some bleakness too. Because the current exhibition isn’t some worthy Egyptian pots, but a retrospective of Sussex Modernism.  People who, over decades, lived together in Sussex, not as a single group, but as distinct collections of artists and writers and emigres and free-lovers and political thinkers, who found a degree of freedom in the English countryside. Freedom from war and oppression and institutionalized mindsets and society and prying eyes. On the surface, these looked like little Edens and the names attached are known the world over.  But they weren’t. With all this creative energy came great sadness and pain. Eric Gill was criminally repulsive. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse. Relationships and children were abandoned carelessly. And Lee Miller, suffering from what we would now call PTSD from her experiences as a WWII combat photographer (she was one of the first to the camps,)  tried to drink herself to death at her Sussex home, Farley Farm.  Oh what a woman Lee Miller was. Like Peggy Guggenheim, on the surface everything a powerful, fabulous woman could be. But her life, like that of Peggy, was filled with terrible family secrets and tremendous unhappiness. The Imperial War Museum had a terrific exhibition of her work, a few years ago. What an eye for the beautiful, the simple and the evil. She went from photographing movie stars and fashionably dressed women in wartime to corpses in concentration camps, corpses she treated with the same individual respect she had the socialites, making the pictures all the more horrifying. Like the parties at Peggy’s palace, those at Farley Farm, where Roland Penrose, the great English surrealist and founder of the ICA and American Vogue model turned photographer, Lee Miller lived, hosted Picasso and Max Ernest and other great game changers. Oh if only walls could talk. Or maybe not.

cofIt was with these two very strong women in mind that I went to see the Lady Emma Hamilton exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Again, a tremendous life. From abject poverty of the coal-mining variety to the most famous woman of her time. She is, of course, best known for being the mistress of Lord Nelson. But she was so much more. A superb performer, a consummate hostess and, when war broke out with France, a skilled diplomat. A great beauty, yes. But a powerful and ever inquisitive brain, as well. And a really sad life. Is there a theme here? Oh, I  hope not. And in the case of these three, one could easily argue that the sadness came first and their success was, if not a solution to at least a catalyst for their success. So not wax wings melting so much as the necessary supports missing, or in the case of Emma, the cruel fickleness of societal norms. In the funny twist of history, we might love them, adore them, honour them far more now than they were in their own lifetimes. Their sadness doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, quite the opposite actually. And anyway, who wants an unlived life?

The bright lights can burn hot, yes, but the alternative isn’t worth considering. Fortunately, I am reminded of this on a regular basis, so no temptation for that path. Just recently, someone I knew vaguely decades ago told  me I was “an inspiration.” This was not meant as a compliment, rather a mocking indictment of my life, because his choice of a small-minded, joyless, curiosity-free existence makes him a better person, so he claims, and (this is my favourite part), he and the people he lives with are “genuine.” Genuine what?? one is tempted to ask, lots of descriptive nouns at the ready!  What does that make me and mine? Zombies, vampires, aliens, Animagi, if you prick us, do we not bleed?  Fine. Go ahead. Stand before Auntie Mame’s laden banquet table with your mouth defiantly sewn shut. There is enough unavoidable misery in this world as is, I will never understand the conscious pursuit of. But then misery does love company, perhaps that is the lure, just not my company!

sdrSo that is the great trick isn’t it, to find the right level between skin scorching brilliance and obscure pointlessness. Maybe to acknowledge both, but stay a generous distance from the bottom and at least a sensible distance from the top end…a gentle warm glow without the flames. Be discreetly wealthy enough to own Two Temple Place and fill it with art and books,  and Edward James’ Mae West Lips couch (designed with Salvador Dali), trust me, it looks perfect here, and of course interesting, way outside the box kinds of people, but never, ever, ever trend on Twitter. Yes, that seems a good plan.  A very good plan indeed.

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