On London’s loving reminder….Anno Domini 66/100

dsc_0001_422016 has been a tough year. I’ve mentioned that often. And the result of the US election about did me in. Having said I was going to go to bed early, as I, like most of the world, thought I already knew the outcome, I ended up staying up all night, watching with shock. I stumbled bleary eyed and sad to the gym the next morning. “My wife has been crying for hours. And we aren’t American!” one of the lovely trainers told me. I felt defeated and drained. And fed up. I decided to turn my back on the world. Not the correct reaction, I know, but nothing seems to be right at the moment. Turn my back on the world, but a quick trip to the theatre first. For I had tickets for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to see a new version of Milton’s masque, Comus. The Globe, and it’s indoor theatre Sam Wanamaker, are places I consider to be sacred (posts #8 & 25 ), a refuge when everything seems wrong. I went alone, not sure that the exhausting combination of no sleep and reality wouldn’t send me straight back home. Instead, I sat mesmerized by the play, loving every word. And re-wrote my pledge. Not turn my back on the world, but move, at least temporarily, into a impenetrable bubble of culture. Went into a self-imposed exile, stayed off social media, and when I did engage with others it was only over art or theatre or anything Harry Potter. Even London herself was kept at a distance. I spent hours at home alone, finishing tasks I had started years earlier. I cleaned up rooms and cleared out closets and caught up on all the family holiday photo books. I was quiet and dull and looked at life only through the very hazy lenses of paint and poetry. And you know what, it has been bloody great. I think I am going to stick with this lifestyle a while longer. But London, knowing me as she does, has given me the occasional wink, the gently blown kiss, the silent connection. Because connection there still is, and connections, all round, there still are. On Wednesday afternoon I learned that my son Joseph’s wonderful trumpet teacher, Sandy Hooks, had not only written a Christmas musical, Anno Domini, but that it was being performed that night at St Paul’s Covent Garden, the Actor’s Church. I decided to go. And London smiled slyly.

St Paul’s, built by Indigo Jones in 1633, is an oasis of calm at the edge of manically busy Covent Garden. Due to its location in the West End, it has long had a connection with the theatre community. Last December, I was lucky enough to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) Christmas Carol service at the church. A glorious evening of Christmas-related readings and gorgeous hymns. Funny, irreverent, traditional and simply beautiful, it showed off the wide range of the students’ talents. In the warmer months, plays, often Shakespeare, are performed at the church. I have yet to make one, but it is on the list!

I didn’t know what to expect of the evening, but I was ready for a little Christmas cheer. What I got was something much, much more. A beautiful, thoughtful, moving re-telling of the Christmas story with Mary, a vulnerable, frightened, scorned Mary as the central character, with a soul swelling West End musical score. That alone would have been enough to lift my spirits. But this is London. Of course there is more. The actors on the evening were an impressive collection of stage and screen talent. With gorgeous, incredible singing voices and fabulous accents from…..everywhere: east London, Manchester, Nigeria, posh, Wales, and more, the stunning voices that make up this City I love.  And suddenly I felt London’s gentle poke to my ribs. Reminding me that for all the misery that this world makes for itself, London still holds a glimpse of the world I wish to live in. A world full of theatre and music and diverse accents and hope. Most of all, hope.

Anno Domini will be performed again at the Clapham Omnibus, in December. Tickets available through Eventbrite.

Instagram: @mylondonpassion

 

 

 

 

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On giant buttocks…..Turner Prize 65/100

dsc_0028_11London has a gigantic pair of buttocks. Can any other city make this claim? I think not. My work here is done.

Oh, but I love all you dear readers so much, and I know you must have many questions….like, what has our London Passion done to deserve to be standing with giant buttocks? Can I stand next to giant buttocks? Who gets the credit for these giant buttocks? How many times is she going to type the word “buttocks,” (as many as I can.) And I will now try to answer….this sculpture, by Anthea Hamilton, is one of the four finalists for the Turner Prize 2016, on display at the Tate Britain. The Turner Prize, first awarded in 1984, is to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain. It is a way to engage the public with contemporary art. The official line is to “widen interest in contemporary art in Britain,”  but what it mostly does is enrage certain members of the public and get everyone talking. This was the platform that gave us Tracey Emin’s My Bed, which, as you all know, I love. But not everyone does. A few years ago, Martin Creed’s piece, Work No. 227,  was an empty room where the lights flicked on and off. Satisfying our inner toddler or most annoying thing ever….art is always in the eye of the beholder. And the Turner Prize wants many eyes to behold and react. The more people are engaged with contemporary art, the more relevant it becomes. Or so we hope. If nothing else, it is a great excuse to take the kids out and have a collective chuckle. We might even learn something, about the world. Or ourselves.

Anthea Hamilton’s piece, Project for a Door, after Gaetano Pesce, was originally a design for a front door, made by a New York based architect, Gaetano Pesce, in the 1970s. How outrageous and incredible would that have been! The catalogue text accompanying this piece, however, is some proper art world yap. Phrases like “obscure culture precedence”  and “statement of conceptual intent” are used. I don’t think anyone looks at this big ass and thinks “yes, it is the collapse of high/low hierarchies.” Instead, given the headline news over the last many months, a huge arse could easily be seen as a statement on the state of the world: Brexit, austerity, terrorism, insane people running for office, GBBO moving to Channel 4. But it isn’t. Not at all. Firstly, it is very, very nice bum. Beautifully cupped in large manicured hands. There is nothing sad or miserable or frightening about this behind. Instead it says “Look at me, I am gorgeous.” We need gorgeous. Lots of gorgeous. And fabulous photo ops. Two young men in the room with us were very very excited by it all, or one was.  He was performing various scenarios, some extremely naughty,  in and around the sculpture while the other, somewhat mortified, took pictures. My daughter and I enjoyed the free show. They enjoyed us enjoying their free show. Smiles and laughter all round.

dsc_0031_10-2Hamilton’s second room was filled with chastity belts. I have longed to write about chastity belts for ages. Because I know something about them most people don’t know, thanks to the hours I spent, several years ago,  in the thorough and exquisitely detailed Museum of Torture, in a small town in Italy. Chastity belts are NOT instruments of oppression and torture and gruesome male dominance. Quite the opposite actually. As a medieval man, you would never have clapped your woman into a metal cage before riding off into battle. You would have hoped to have just impregnated her and to ultimately return, triumphant, to a healthy, male heir. Encasing potential mother and (boy) child would have been dangerous and counterproductive to this progenitive goal. Rather, chastity belts were something women put on themselves. When invaders arrived. Certainly more effective than a can of mace. And Hamilton’s belts are not menacing. Hanging like tiny child swings, decorated, some with flowers, they are pretty and playful and prohibitive.  Not upsetting. Liberating. “My body, my choice,” in iron and leather and steel, with some lovely laser cut designs.

dsc_0040_10In total, 4 artists were on show. Michael Dean’s work included a large pool of 1 pence coins, UK poverty line of twenty thousand four hundred and thirty six pounds…, the amount being exactly 1p less than a family of four needs annually to stay above the poverty line in the UK. Suddenly the coins look very few indeed. The adorable little boy next to me shouted out” Mummy, can I have some money,” as he reached a chubby little hand out. “No, darling,” his mother answered. “No,” we all answered, in our heads, because there is already too little.

dsc_0037_10Josephine Pryde included a fantastic smallish train in her room, covered in graffiti from cities through which it has already travelled. Too bad we couldn’t actually hop on board. Helen Maarten takes objects from everyday life and re-assembles and displays them in new and unusual ways. I spend my days moving and re-assembling everyday objects. So I should have loved this work. But I seek art to escape.

And that brings me back to the big butt. At the end of the exhibit, people are invited to write their thoughts on a card and pin it to the wall. My daughter and I  loved reading them. Lots of complaints. “What is the bloody point,” and “I think this is terrible, or a joke!” being some of the more articulate responses. And then there was this one, from a woman (judging by the handwriting), struggling with depression. “I have been feeling very sad. But Anthea Hamilton’s Project for a Door made me smile, then laugh & laugh. It’s the lightest I have felt in ages.”  Wow! The same little boy I mentioned before took one look at the giant buttocks and shouted, with pure glee in his voice “LOOK, it’s a big bottom!!!!!” Given the state of the current world, those reactions are gigantic ticks in the plus column. Gigantic and needed and appreciated. Thank you Turner Prize.

The finalists will be on show at the Tate Britain until 2 January, 2017. The winner will be announced in 5 December, 2016.

 

 

On the Great Fire of London…350 years on 64/100

p1020869-2Who doesn’t love a celebration? Who doesn’t love a roaring fire? Who doesn’t love crazy fun things of a weekend? Oh London you just give and give and give. Though 350 years ago the mother of all fires took and took and took. As all year 2 school children know, the Great Fire of London broke out in a baker’s house on Pudding Lane, on 2 September, 1666. It had been a long, hot summer and the fire embers in a left-smoldering oven all too quickly turned into something completely out of control. It was so violent, ballads written after the fact described it as a demon, that “the fire flew with flaming feet,” the prevailing wisdom being that something so destructive had to be otherworldly. Slow response from authorities (the king said a woman could piss the fire out. Charming.) and strong winds allowed the fire to rage for 4 days, until the winds abated and the fire burnt itself out. Leaving a proper trail of destruction and misery. Yet out of the ashes……came 51 new Wren churches in addition to his great masterpiece, the still iconic St Paul’s cathedral. And a fabulous excuse for some fantastic installations 350 years on. It being London, it wasn’t just a rehash of Great Fire facts, but a starting point for interesting fire-esque fun.

p1020781How do you celebrate an event that was so catastrophic at the time? By positioning it against other catastrophes perhaps, using grains of rice, in beautiful Middle Temple Hall. Of All the People in the World was a thoughtful installation of piles of rice, each grain representing one person. Stats on the Great Fire, of course, and the Great British Bake Off, not least because the Great Fire started in a baker’s shop. Brexit: votes in, votes out, and the equally large mound of those who didn’t bother. The number of current day refugees resulted in line of rice too long to photograph properly. As was the number of dead in one day at the Battle of the Somme. The number of female victims of domestic abuse in the UK in 2014 was unacceptably large. But so was the almost as large pile for the male victims. Not the equal opportunity we hope for, certainly. These were set alongside numbers from the Archers, the long running Radio 4 drama currently featuring a storyline on the subject. But these chilling facts aside, it wasn’t all depressing, state of the world stuff. I learned the number of people who have left their skull to science (1). And p1020788-2how many teachers Ireland could employ for a year if Google paid their tax (lots). What was the point of all of this? Not sure really, numbers in action, maybe, but I do enjoy a bit of juxtaposition in a stunning location.

The second activity was much less cerebral: a giant domino display. Starting from the Monument, the memorial built by Wren for Londoners to remember the fire that broke out nearby on Pudding Lane, breeze blocks in three routes to mimic the path of the fire were set up. And on the dot of 6 the first was given a shove. In the pouring rain. With extremely drunk 20 somethings weaving in and out of the display. Where they all came from, no one knew, but they were staggering round in packs as eager volunteers attempted to deflect them. My favourite moment was when a small group of young men, with very posh accents, began digging round in the shrubbery p1020815across from One New Change, oblivious to the crowds patiently waiting for some dominoes fun. There was a triumphal shout as one produced a 2/3 empty bottle of true plonk, now warm white wine they had clearly secreted away hours before….for reasons known only to them. It was then that they noticed the rather spectacular dominoes waiting to fall, and this startled them so much they ran off. The rest of us enjoyed a good ole self-righteous laugh at their expense. And then the blocks started  to fall and we cheered and cheered. When it was all over the volunteers looked a bit glum. Because now they had to clear  them all up. “Does anyone want to take some home?” one asked wearily…..well, I didn’t need to be asked twice. Heavy, wet and rather crumbly, my teenager daughter and I lugged one home each. On the Tube. Lots of stares and comments.p1020816 But now they sit, at a jaunty angle, in my front room. Art! Of course it is!

That same evening, when the rain had stopped, I went along to the Tate Modern. They had transformed all the area between the river and the museum into a huge and stunning Fire Garden. If I suffered pyromania, it would have been a peek into heaven. As I don’t, I kept a respectful distance and just took loads of photos. At the same  time, on the other side of the beautiful Millennium Bridge, the dome of St Paul’s was lit, as if ablaze. Simply beautiful.

p1020822Throughout the weekend, a large and intricately carved model of the medieval City of London floated on the river, just across from Gabriel’s Wharf. On the Sunday evening, this structure was set on fire and allowed to burn away, the skyline of the new, shiny, tall, 21st century City of London visible further downstream. Resurgam. Out of the ashes. London. Always.

On Battle and the party of the millennium….63/100

dsc_0025_10-2On Sunday, the children went with me on the train to Battle. To celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. When William the Conqueror of Normandy defeated Saxon King Harold, and became the King of England. The rest, as they say, is history. Yes, I know, East Sussex is nowhere near London, how can I possibly pull this off as a London passion? Oooh, but I can. And I will. Following his win, William went about the country conquering, which is a more polite word for the rampaging and oppression that followed, until he came to the City of London. By that I mean the City. The Square Mile, the financial district, the footprint (more or less) of Roman Londonium, the corporation from which I have my official, red, City of London guide badge. A place with its own identity and opinions, just look to the ongoing Brexit debate, its own rules, own police force, own money and own history. A history that predates Greater London. A history that includes William realizing he had discovered the cash machine of the country. And, being no fool, he didn’t conquer. Instead, he scrawled, in French, on a scrap of paper, a few words acknowledging the City’s rights and privileges. The golden goose was spared. In the City, this Norman invader is known as William I, a friend.

dsc_0026_10And it would have been nothing short of churlish to refuse to celebrate the 950th anniversary of a friend. Connection made. Train tickets booked. For the town of Battle. The actual fight took place on 14 October, not in Hastings, as its name would suggest, but in this bit of land about 6 miles to the north. Clearly the villagers were too weary after all the fighting to bother with a fancy name to mark the location of this pivotal point in history, and called it “Battle.” Accurate anyway. The 14th was a Friday in the 2016 calendar. But we are flexible species and so the celebrations were simply moved to the weekend. We went along for the Sunday, 16 October. 950 years on, two days is hardly a bother, in fact it was gorgeous. Literally tucked into the rolling hills of East Sussex with that ever-changing sky the Dutch 17th century painters captured dsc_0060_8so well, it was easy to pretend that nothing much had happened in the intervening 950 years. The land itself is surprisingly, shockingly untouched. To imagine it as the great battlefield that changed the course of English history doesn’t take much work. Oooh, but to have it transformed into THE battlefield, now that was a true treat!

dsc_0035_8This make-believe was made all the easier with the re-enactors. Hundreds and hundreds of re-enactors. Their white, cloth tents picturesquely dotting the landscape and their impossibly adorable little children dashing about in costume, clutching bits of food their equally kitted out mothers had just whipped up on small fires. Who knew re-enacting was a family affair? For the men, with the armour and swords and beautiful, beautiful shields, this weekend must have been the highlight of their re-enacting lives. Why wouldn’t it be? Not only was it THE dsc_0032_9battle that changed the course of western history, it took place almost 1000 years ago. A Millennium. That doesn’t happen too often. And most of us won’t be around for the actual 1,000 year celebration, so good idea to make the most of this one. And they did. We did.

 

We spent much of the day strolling round the camps. It took us a while to realize why some of the men were happy to smile and wave and pose for photos but were a little reticent with the chat. Because they didn’t speak English. They spoke French. No, really, they are Normans after all. Ok, ok, the purists among you are growing agitated. Yes, yes, I know the Normans wouldn’t have considered themselves French and they probably didn’t speak French either, more likely a Scandi dialect as they were most likely Vikings. But those geographical details have been worn away through the centuries of conflict and friendship and today the people who fought as Normans spoke French. “Real French,” as one of my children informed me solemnly. I overheard a fair amount of German as well. Had I been really paying attention, instead of just plotting to get myself a hand-painted shield (failed), I am sure I would have noticed more languages. The modern day 1066 battlefield was plenty European.

dsc_0048_8In the Saxon camp English was spoken. In more regional accents than I could possibly identify. And such a visceral sense of camaraderie, laughter, singing and general feeling of good fun. You couldn’t help but feel envious of their involvement in such living history.

Of course English Heritage put on a proper good show. For those who didn’t think stalking people who like to dress up as medieval warriors was the order of the day, there were talks and falconry demonstrations and have-a-go-archery. The gatehouse holds the permanent Battle of Hastings exhibition with gorgeous rooftop views. The ruins of the Abbey are stunning. The high altar was built on “this very spot” where Harold got the ole arrow in the eye, so gruesomely portrayed in the Bayeaux tapestry, which ended the fight and won the dsc_0040_9-2country for William. I convinced my youngest to do a little role play for the camera. The large stone tablet marking both the altar and the death spot was strewn with flowers. At first I thought perhaps people were still mourning Harold, but in fact the cards were in memory of re-enactors who were now playing on the big field upstairs. Some were quite touching. I suppose if this was your great passion in life, and I am ALL for passions, what better spot to be remembered than THE spot.

But these were all merely daytime distractions. What we were waiting for, what all the guests were waiting for, what all the re-enactors were waiting for, what English Heritage had created the entire weekend for was THE BATTLE. Everyone took their places. Nervous marshalls moved small children off the ropes at thedsc_0055_8 sides. Cameras were held aloft. A hush of sorts fell. And at 3 o’clock it began. And what a superb spectacle it was!! Helmets glinting in the sun. Horses racing up and down the hill. Banners waving. The clank of steel on steel. The Normans got to run round a lot. The Saxons seemed to do a lot of just standing, which seemed much less fun. The “dead” lay still for a few moments before turning over and inching themselves along to get better views of the action. Boys and women rushed round with jugs of water for the fallen. For a while it all seemed rather chaotic. “What is happening?” I kept demanding of my children, who wisely ignored me. And then William, rumoured to be dead, rode dsc_0068_4triumphantly by, helmet off, hair waving in the wind, proving to friends and enemies alike that he was still in it, and intended to win it. Things went rather badly for the Saxons after that. And suddenly it was all over. Or perhaps more accurately, suddenly it all began, for all primary school history lessons anyway. 14 October, 1066. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life…..and 950 years on we were all feeling pretty good.

On Singing Bridges and Waterloo…62/100

I admire people with a passion. And when they are clever enough to share their passion with others, I adore them all the more. I’m not that bothered by what the particular passion is, but if they can make it appeal, if only for a bit of time, I am all for it. So when I heard about composer and conceptual artist Claudia Molitor’s musical homage to Waterloo Bridge, I had to experience it. The Singing Bridge is an auditory feast that both responds to the reality of Waterloo Bridge and encourages a dreamy, unhurried meandering over and around the physical structure. Her art is to transform the ordinary, things we take for granted or even downright begrudge, so that we see them with fresh, full of wonder eyes and unbiased ears. Molitor chose Waterloo Bridge because it is a place she knows well, but also because bridges interest her. As she explains in the narrative at the beginning of the walk, bridges are often the first thing to be destroyed during conflict and the first things to be rebuilt in peacetime. The desire to connect and to divide ourselves seems to be part of our genetic make up, and bridges are both a metaphor and a reality of human interaction. p1030022The Singing Bridge, part of the Totally Thames festival, is free, always a bonus. So, on this recent rainy Saturday afternoon, with my girls in tow, I gave it a go. And loved it. I loved Molitor’s voice and her narrative. I loved her compositions and that of the other musicians. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, my girls weren’t so sure about all the pieces, but, for me, the ethereal, electronic, at times faux folk (is that an actual genre?) worked beautifully.  I was completely of the moment with Waterloo Bridge and my youngest captured the magical nature of London and the Thames in the rain, all that tangible mist and shadow, on camera  The walk begins at Somerset House, where you are handed p1030005some large, trendy white headphones and a map, but are immediately told the route is optional. That said, you are crossing a bridge, so the options are limited. The idea is to slowly, thoughtfully and with a heightened sense of awareness cross Waterloo Bridge to the south, have a short stroll round the National Theatre and then back across the bridge. Normally, this can be done in about 15 minutes or less. Quite to my surprise, we took a bit longer than the 40 minutes of audio. Despite the weather and thep1030021 tourists and the crowds of charity walkers and runners, we dawdled with pleasure, refusing to let the frantic pace of London rush us along. Just as Molitor designed. You really do feel that you are looking at the city and the river with a detail you have never noticed before. It is an incredibly relaxing sensation. Romantic even.

Waterloo Bridge, for most people, is iconic for two reasons. The French Impressionist Claude Monet painted a stunning series of paintings from it, capturing London and the Thames in ever-changing light. Two of these paintings can be seen in the National Gallery.  And the Kinks sang about lovers crossing the bridge in Waterloo Sunset, “dirty old river,” below. When my eldest daughter was in Year 2 (7 years old), her class went to Somerset House, home of the Courtauld Gallery collection of impressionist works. Part of the day was spent p1030031on Waterloo Bridge drawing the view, as Monet did more than 100 years earlier. I was a parent helper on this trip and was beside myself with joy at the  sight of my American daughter drawing on Waterloo Bridge, like the famous French artist himself….the gorgeous cultural mix alone made me giddy. But of course Lizzie wasn’t really drawing as Monet had done, because it was a different bridge. Monet’s Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1817 but closed in 1924 due to disrepair. During WWII the bridge was rebuilt, by a mostly female work force, so it is referred to by people who know these things as the Ladies Bridge. Even better, the Portland stone cladding atop the reinforced concrete releases cleaning chemicals whenever it gets wet…as in whenever it rains. So it self-cleans. Now that is properly clever…well done ladies. It was also the first bridge in London to have electric lights. And it links Somerset House, home of art and ideas of every description, with the National Theatre, an institution dedicated to offering plays and musicals of the traditional and the modern in often new and unexpected ways. Two bastions of London culture, on either side of the mighty Thames, connected by Waterloo Bridge, which for the month of September, sings for you. What could be better?

p1030035When the girls and I came up out of the Tube, rather wet but happier for our singing bridge experience, this notice greeted us in the ticket hall of our station. The opening stanza of The Water is Wide, a folk song covered by so many famous voices including Bob Dylan and James Taylor. Could there have been a more fitting note to this day. Thank you London.

For more information on the Totally Thames festival: http://totallythames.org/

 

 

 

On breakfasting in the sky 61/100

img_4755One of the great things about a birthday is that it focuses the mind. No, I don’t mean being overwhelmed with thoughts of the wretchedness of aging and death and how irritating accomplished 26 year olds are and does sitting in a cold chamber really remove wrinkles. I mean it gives one the excuse to do things you want to do but hadn’t otherwise gotten round to doing. “It is for my birthday,” is a very useful phrase when booking all sorts of self-indulgent outings. Especially, if, like me, you decide that a birth DAY is so limiting, better a birth WEEK. Come on, I made it this far in relatively one piece, I should be able to do better than a few witty cards and a slice of Sainsbury’s rose iced madeira cake (which was delicious by the way.) So I dug out my “things I should have already done in London” list and got busy. Top of that list (oh, a little pun there) was the Sky Garden. The beautiful, mostly enclosed botanical garden on the very top of the Walkie Talkie building, the one that set fire to things when it first opened in spring 2014. But I didn’t just want aimg_4769 quick dash up. I wanted to savour, relish the experience. And the security protocol is formidable, so might as well make it worthwhile. Most of all, I wanted to enjoy the Sky Garden before hoi polloi swarmed in with their buggies and backpacks and selfies. It was my birthday, after all. And I am an unrepentant snob, if you haven’t figured that out already. So I booked an early morning breakfast, at the cafe, and invited my gorgeous friend and frequent companion in all sorts of London adventures, Sara, to join as my “birthday treat.”

img_4752We loved it. Being there early in the morning meant we had it almost to ourselves. We lounged elegantly on the blanket-strewn sofas with our coffees and grapefruit juices and admired our gorgeous city from on high, from all angles. The Shard looked particularly powerful and the rooftops of the older, shorter buildings are such a jigsaw of shapes and shadows I half expected to see free runners or secret lovers. The roof of the Walkie Talkie, officially 20 Fenchurch Street, designed by Rafael Vinoly, is a series of curved, glass panels, which were being carefully cleaned by a team of harnessed window washers on the morning. The light is extraordinary, constantly changing under the swift moving clouds and multi-coloured sky. Dutch 17th century painters,with their talent for painting sky in permanent transition, would have img_4763loved the space.

We had cake, but the request for a candle was met with great nervousness and suspicion, as though we had suggested a little live grenade throwing, and ultimately denied. Nevermind, it was delicious anyway.

The gardens themselves begin just above the expanse of img_4762the cafe and swoop upwards, on either side, to a smaller, higher level, with a restaurant just above. The planting is beautiful and meticulous, segmented by water features, narrow pathways and hidden alcoves. It would be a fantastic place to have a party. London spreads out below you, yet, standing under the trees, you feel very far away from the hustle and bustle indeed.

img_4760And then 10 o’clock came. The hordes arrived. The spell was broken. And we’d taken all the photos we wanted. So we left. But with plans to return. Soon. It is a rather lovely way to start a day, birthday or not.

Visiting the Sky Garden is free, but booking is essential. https://skygarden.london/sky-garden

 

On love songs in C….bees in The Hive 60/100

DSC_0003_7Bees hum in the key of C. That is such a wonderful fact I am not sure I need to say anything more. Except to add that my beloved Frank Turner reminds us, “…we write love songs in C. ” Now I could just drop in a few stunning photos and…..voila, latest post finished.

Oh, but I can’t help myself. I WANT to drone onDSC_0010_6 (ha ha, little pun there) about The Hive, the gorgeous and heartwarming installation at Kew Gardens, in celebration of the humble and extraordinary bumblebee. And the buzz of scientific research (ha ha again) that has gone into creating something that is not only beautiful to look at, incredible to experience, but is a statement on the future of our existence on this planet.

Built for the 2015 Milan International Expo, the theme of which was “Feeding the Planet-Energy for Life” the UK committee knew it needed something extraordinary. In part of their pre-planning research, the committee polled non-UK nationals as to the UK’s reputation. Hannah Corbett, UK Milan Expo 2015 Commissioner General & Director, discovered that the UK was considered “unusual in its preference for eccentricity and its love of the quirky.” Well, eccentric and quirky have always been positives in my book, and The Hive delivers magnificently on both. Another was that the UK has a long, solid history of engineering brilliance. Just think of all those amazing things the Victorians DSC_0005_7built. Railways, bridges, greenhouses. Yes, greenhouses. Which revolutionized their influence on worldwide food production. Suddenly seeds and plants from vastly different environments could be cultivated and studied, it was the impetus to re-inventing Kew Gardens in the 1840s…., from a place of elite leisure to one of serious science, which continues today.

But let’s get back to the bee, the lovely, precious bee, which we have taken for granted for so long we now find ourselves in rather a panic about its demise. The reasons are varied but with a common denominator. Us. Climate change, industrial farming techniques that prefer one crop over a variety, the widespread use of pesticides, the invasion of other bee varieties. Many types of bees feed on just a tiny selection of plants. Remove them and the bee population will soon follow, or vice versa. As 3 out of 4 of plants rely on animals for pollination and of that 75% is done by bees, well, they are rather important. Albert Einstein did NOT predict that humanity was done for without the bee, but an Belgian Nobel prize winner by the name of Maurice Maeterlinck did. Maybe the attribution was reassigned to give the quote more weight. Because it may not be far from the truth. But don’t fear. There are lots and lots and lots of bee champions out there and beekeeping has suddenly become the “in” past time. We are rather keen on self-preservation after all. I am an optimist.

DSC_0014_6The Hive is one more method of awareness raising, and a spectacular one at that. It sits nestled in a wildflower meadow at Kew, rising magnificently skywards like the most fantastic Meccano built greenhouse, without the glass. Instead the Hive offers lights and music, lights and music that are controlled……dramatic pause…wait for it, wait for it….a real hive at Kew. The bees humming and movement activate the light and sound sensors in the installation, waxing and waning throughout the day and seasons. The experience is amazing. It is like standing inDSC_0008_6 gorgeous, non-reflective hall of mirrors with invisible walls of sounds, not unlike waves, crashing all around you. Does any of that simile work??? Suffice to say it is a marvelous, beautiful sensory overload. And an Instagrammers” dream. From all levels and angles.

DSC_0018_5Back to bees. They communicate through vibration, rather than hearing, as we do. You are welcome to imitate the affect by “listening” holding a wooden stick between your teeth. The sensation is rather like being at the dentist. But the Hive is filled with sound we can hear with our ears as well. I started this piece by stating that bees hum in the key of C. The artist approached a team of musicians to “work” with the bees to create an orchestral accompaniment to their humming, in the key of C, using cello, voice, piano, mellotron and steel guitar. The musicians didn’t impose their own playing, rather reacted to what the bees were doing in a sympathetic manner. The result is a stunning, often haunting soundtrack. So much so that it has gone on tour, even making an appearance at Glastonbury, and the album ONE is available to buy.

The artistic genius behind The Hive is Cumbria born, Nottingham educated Wolfgang Buttress. Known for being someone comfortable outside the box, he was concerned, and I quote, “how could one produce a response beyond something glib and tokenistic.” It had DSC_0017_6to be meaningful, but not boring and earnest. It needed real wow factor. And wow, did Buttress deliver. But like all masterpieces, it wasn’t a one man job. Bee specialists, musicians, engineers, landscape architects, contractors and gardeners all played roles in this extraordinary installation. “It was a true collaboration in that egos did not restrict us, instead our different disciplines enabled us to let go where necessary and create when required, ” explains Buttress. Oooh, if only more groups of people could think this way, what a happier (and perhaps more productive) place this world would be.

Have I convinced you to visit? What if I tell you that Kew Gardens is thinking of hosting adult evenings in the Autumn with drinks and the chance to experience The Hive at night, lights and sounds shining and buzzing and humming to our heart’s delight in the Autumn air. Well sign me up, certainly.

And see, I wasn’t just using bees as an excuse to quote Turner, as if I need an excuse, we really do write love songs in C. The bees perhaps writing the greatest one of them all.

http://www.kew.org/

Instagram & Twitter: @mylondonpassion

On Ceremony of the Keys and tortuous death…..59/100

13754473_10210310621783791_1200527489421743719_n“Halt! Who Comes There?” asks the solider at The Ceremony of the Keys. This official locking up of the Tower of London, a ceremony dating back more than 700 years, takes place every single night, without fail. During an evening of enemy bombing in WWII the ceremony was delayed. The Yeoman Warders sent the King a written apology. Such is the import of this ceremony. Important and beautiful. Spine-tinglingly beautiful. And so it was with much, much pleasure I attended with my younger two and The Guests, two friends and their sons over from both coasts of the USA. It was a clear, warm night, a perfect evening to be at the Tower. It is a magnificent place during the day. At night it is magical, eerie, otherworldly; you can almost hear the footsteps of those who came before. And the ceremony is more than just tradition, it has a sacred quality to it, IMG_2641heightened by the fact that absolutely no video or photography is allowed and strict silence is requested. Which meant we all had to stand still and watch, listen, absorb, quietly. Something we do so rarely these days of non-stop technology. A brief digital detox, if you like. And history. To be part of something so old, so steeped in legend and lore, is a true treat indeed. I will stop there, as should any of you reading this have the opportunity to see it yourself, I would like your eyes and minds not to be fuddled by my observations. It is worth a fresh, IMG_2640unfettered reaction. Of delight and wonder.

If, before or after the ceremony, you would care for a small drink, may I suggest the fantastically, but grammatically incorrectly named pub The Hung Drawn & Quartered, just across the way from the Tower. People are hanged. Pictures are hung. But that is a fussy detail. The pub refers to a particularly gruesome method of execution for men convicted of high treason, dating back to the 13th century. Hanging until almost dead, but still conscious, disembowelment, emasculation and finally a (at that point merciful) beheading and cutting up of the body into 4 pieces. This pub carries the name in remembrance of Major-General Thomas Harrison, one of the men who met his end in DSC_0358this way. Why? Because it was Harrison who signed the death warrant for Charles I. There is a plaque on the outside of the pub, quoting the famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys’ account of Harrison’s execution at Charing Cross; Pepys lived round the corner from the pub, which probably explains why it is there. When the first Charles’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne, 11 years later,  he settled a few scores. Revenge can be a bloody business indeed. But don’t be put off by this grim scrap of history, it is a lovely, charming place. Welcoming to children, if not too busy, and beautiful window boxes (yes, that matters.)

DSC_0002_8“So,” I hear you asking, “how do I get an evening like this for myself?” It is possible, as long as you have patience. The Ceremony is free and open to the public, but tickets are limited. Most evenings sell out months in advance. For those of you who are organized, it will be some worthwhile advanced planning. And if you spend some time at the pub, don’t forget to raise a toast to My London Passion, may she be dazzled by this city for years to come.

To book Ceremony tickets: http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/ceremony-of-the-keys/#gs.dvdBg2A

Instagram & Twitter: @mylondonpassion

 

On Romans…..and Billingsgate Bath House 58/100

DSC_0261Many years ago, a university friend sent me her daughter for 2 weeks, in the summer, while she and her utterly vile, soon to be ex-husband battled things out. I was not only determined to show Julia a marvelous time (I did) but more specifically, I was determined that she experience something, anything that she couldn’t find in the US. After much thinking the answer was obvious. Romans. Lots of lots of Romans, because while plenty of people are happy to devulge the locations of alien invasion, there are absolutely no Roman remains in the 50 states. And that is how the children and I, plus Julia, spent a fantastic week on Hadrian’s Wall. Far,far from London. But the Romans spent plenty of time in London, as well. They founded Londinium, a thriving city on the edge of Thames from 43 to 410 AD, the footprint of which remains, more or less, current day City of London. Roman ruins are scattered all IMG_2228round the City, many of them only revealed when Hilter’s bombs destroyed so much of the Square Mile in WWII. But ruins in a modern city are a funny thing. Often, the ruins are known, but kept buried, both for their own safety and the needs of the current populace. Lately, the trend seems to be swinging toward finding a happy balance between the intellectual curiousity of the public and the desires of developers, by creating viewing platforms within the modern buildings. This is a very good thing indeed. Especially when London wants to show off for guests.

DSC_0256I wrote last year about some embarrassingly pointless Americans who insisted on visiting my city and hated it. But they are bad Americans. They are probably going to vote for Donald Trump. Happily, most of the Americans who visit London are good ones. And if they are MY friends visiting, well, obviously they are the best of the best of the best and deserve….well, some Romans. …so I really needed to come up with more than a few old walls for Greg and James, two friends from NYC days and their respective 11 year old sons Danny and Alexander. Fortunately, as so often happens, London responded beautifully by opening Billingsgate Bath House on Lower Thames Street just in time for their visit. Thank you London.

Billingsgate Bath House is a Roman complex underneath an otherwise unremarkable concrete office building at the eastern end of Lower Thames Street. The Victorians were aware that the complex existed, and there must have been something about it that DSC_0257appealed as they didn’t demolish it to make way for something else, as they so often did, but just left it alone, the nicest thing they could have done. After protracted negociations with the council, the Museum of London was given permission to offer tours to the public. I couldn’t wait to sign us up!

The site is so new and the staff so eager, that they came and found us wondering up and down Lower Thames, worried that we might have trouble finding it, which we did, and escorted us into the site. I do appreciate good customer service! And then we were treated to a wonderful, funny and thoughtful private tour. We learned, among other things, that where building works go, nothing much has changed. Research suggests that the earliest and best built parts were constructed at the beginning of the end of Roman rule on this isle. A villa or perhaps a guest house. With magnificent underfloor heating. The engineering required, all still very much on display, is spectacular. But as so often happens, someone decided to make some unfortunate changes at a later date. Shoddy workmanship and extremely poor planning DSC_0259meant the floor would have become significantly less effective as time went on. Was it cheap labour? Or just cowboy builders? Worse, a little DIY? Happy to hear the Roman empire struggled with these difficulties as well.

And then the bath house itself. A very small version of what would have been a grand structure back in Rome. Maybe that was the problem, that whoever designed this bath house had never actually been to Rome. Maybe they didn’t really know what they were building and all the guess work resulted in a strangely improbable arrangement. Rooms all too small and only a tiny tub in which to plunge. A tub with no drainage,  no less. How odd. How dirty! Maybe the owner just ran out of money and wound up with only an approximation of the original plans? Maybe the baths here weren’t meant to be the public occasions they were in the old country, but a private location for ….well, things that require privacy? Or just more bad workmanship? Plenty for the imagination to play with.

And then there is the mystery of the Anglo-Saxon brooch…..so many options…we of IMG_2252course went with the secret lovers….oops, I say too much. Grab your favourite people, friends or relations, and bathe in some Roman history.

On The Lost Palace and holding a dead man’s heart…..57/100

DSC_0464Good guests were coming to town. Really, really good guests. So I needed to pull out the proper showing off stops. Fortunately, as regular readers will know, London treats me very well. Often, I have but to ask and I am given. No exception this time. I wrote “what to do with James and Greg” on the top of a blank piece of paper and within hours the HRP sent me an email about their brand new interactive tour, opening just days after The Guests arrived. Would I be interested in tickets??? Would I ever!!! And so it was that on a sunny afternoon (of course London was sunny for The Guests) that James and his son Alexander (age 11), Greg and his son Danny (age 11) and me with my Stephen and Katherine (ages 10 and 12), history lovers all, set off to explore Whitehall Palace, an enormous complex that extended from Trafalgar Square to Big Ben and over into St. James’s Park. At its height it had more than 1,500 rooms, far more thanDSC_0496 either Versailles in France or the Vatican in Rome. It was a favourite of Henry VIII, who married two of his queens and died at the Palace. Both Charles I and II also died there, under very different circumstances. It hosted plays and masques and enough intrigue to keep thriller writers busy for years. Unfortunately, the whole thing, except for Banqueting House, with its still stunning Peter Paul Rubens ceiling, burned down 300 years ago. But that is the beauty of technology. And imagination. And feet.

DSC_0466Using headphones and the two before mentioned accoutrements, the tour takes you round and through Whitehall Palace, exposing celebrations and secrets alongIMG_2966 the way. It runs in geographical rather than chronological order, so we were sometimes a bit confused by the details. But the main acts were great. Playing Cordelia in the first ever performance of Shakespeare’s  King Lear, overhearing the secret marriage of Anne Boleyn to Henry, eavesdropping on the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. A busker sang us a ballad near 10 Downing Street. The triangular device we carried along the way turned into a sword, complete with satisfying swishing sounds. We enjoyed the full gruesomeness of a cock fight in Horse Guards Parade, though some chose to watch a joust instead. We heard fire consuming the building without mercy and the equally merciless looting that took place after. But best of all, BEST of all, we held the beating heart of Charles I in our hands as he was executed, his DSC_0480head removed from his body just above the current entrance to Banqueting House, the throbbing device in our hands made still by an axe. How often do you get to hold a dying man’s heart in your hands? That alone is worth the tour.

It is only running until 4 September, 2016, so book those tickets now and get ready to live history.

http://www.hrp.org.uk/banqueting-house/visit-us/top-things-to-see-and-do/the-lost-palace/#gs.V711Qcs

Instagram & Twitter: @mylondonpassion

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