Culture Vulture

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One of the benefits of teaching is the longer than average holidays, allowing for true rest and recreation rather than a few rushed days snatched here and there. Over Christmas I was able to thoroughly enjoy myself and see friends I have been ignoring since I started teaching in September, as well as catch up on some culture. On the very night I broke up from school, I hot footed it to London to meet two old school friends. We had tickets to see Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells. I knew that it was being turned into a ‘Gothic Fairytale’, but I didn’t expect it to be Twilight in tutus…oh, yes! Believe it or not, the twist in the tale is that the fairies are actually vampires! The first section, before Sleeping Beauty falls into her 100 year slumber, is a beautiful feast for the eyes, with an Edwardian tea party, a wonderfully lifelike puppet baby climbing the curtains and some gorgeous costumes. The dancing is not classically complex; there is no en pointe work and no impressive jumps or pirouettes, but the overall effect was spellbinding nonetheless. In the second half, things become a little more…interesting. We fast forward to the present day, where punk vampire fairies dance in night clubs and Sleeping Beauty’s true love, who has been turned into a vampire in order to survive long enough to awaken her, dances in a tracksuit. I didn’t really get the point of this section, and though it was visually very arresting, and not to mention highly inventive, it just didn’t strike a chord with me. When I saw Swan Lake in New York I felt moved by the exquisite dancing, but during Sleeping Beauty I just felt confused. I had to work hard to understand what was actually happening and who was who; there was a lack of coherence to the narrative and the vampiric element was bizarre rather than brilliant. As much as I appreciate what Bourne was trying to do, watching this made me realise that I am more into traditional ballet, and I’ll be sticking with the Royal Ballet from now on!

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

Over New Year I stayed with the lovely Miranda in London, and we booked ourselves two thrilling theatre trips. First up was The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the Almeida Theatre, a wonderful art house theatre in Islington. I discovered this play thanks to Mary; it tells the story of the relationship between the poets Edward Thomas and Robert Frost through the eyes of Thomas’ wife Helen, and while neither of us knew much about either poet, we were intrigued enough by the rave reviews to want to go and see it. I’ve had Thomas’ biography by Matthew Hollis and Helen Thomas’ autobiography of their life together on my shelves for ages, so I hoped that the play would give me the push I needed to actually pick them up. Thankfully, it did; we were both absolutely mesmerised by it. The acting was sublime, the script both desperately moving and hilariously funny, and the story of these men’s lives and relationships completely arresting. It’s probably one of the best plays I’ve ever seen, and has made me want to learn everything I can about these two men, and the women they loved and were loved by. Serendipitously, while charity shopping the following day, I stumbled across Eleanor Farjeon‘s memoir of her relationship with Edward Thomas. Apparently it’s rather rare and hard to get hold of, so I feel very lucky indeed that it crossed my path!

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The following day, we went to see Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic. I didn’t really know much about it before going in, and was bowled over by how much fun it was. A play within a play, it is about a stage troupe putting on a performance of The Taming of the Shrew, where the two lead actors are recently divorced from one another and at each others’ throats behind the scenes. Originally written by Cole Porter, the songs are brilliant and the dialogue is sparklingly witty. It was a colourful and entertaining spectacle that had been very well thought through and was marvellously acted – just what you’d expect when Trevor Nunn is at the helm! It’s definitely a must see, and is on until March, so there’s plenty of time to catch it if you fancy going!

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Finally, Miranda and I finished our glut of culture by watching a film I’ve been meaning to see for a while, Liberal Arts. Set on the leafy campus of an Ohio Liberal Arts college, it tells the story of thirty something Jesse, who has reached a cross roads in his life. He has broken up with his girlfriend, has a dead end job he doesn’t enjoy, and no plans for the future. Once an idealist with a love of Romantic poetry, his adulthood has not quite turned out as he dreamed it would when he walked the halls of his much beloved alma mater. When his old Professor calls him up out of the blue to invite him back for his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance to revisit his past. He doesn’t expect to find himself drawn into the lives of several of the current students during his trip, and nor does he anticipate his surprising interactions with his former Professors; both of these will open his eyes in more ways than one, and give him a much needed fresh perspective on his adult life. I found it a heartwarming and moving film, that really got to the heart of how adult life can crush the youthful idealism of those heady university days, when anything seems possible. It reminded me very much of my own student experience at a similarly leafy and bohemian campus, and made me wonder where that naive girl who believed the best in people and thought she could change the world has gone. Maybe I need to go on a similar trip to rediscover my student self; strip off the layers of these past few years of real life and dare to believe in possibility again. I think that would be a good aim for 2013!

Season of Mist and Mellow Fruitfulness

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…once upon a time I could recite that entire poem, but now I can only just about manage the first two lines. These lines have been going around and around inside my mind for the last few days, as a mist has descended on the South East of England. Outside of my classroom window, the beautiful red, gold and ochre trees that are blazing so brightly along the edge of the playing fields and out as far as the eye can see are just poking their heads above a swirling sea of pearly mist, and the grass looks like it is being fondled with icy fingers. It’s all making me feel like I am in a Dickens or Wilkie Collins novel; just give me a lantern and off I shall go to navigate the pea-souped streets of Victorian London!

I have indeed been navigating the streets of London these past couple of weekends; two weeks ago I popped up to visit some friends and we had a glorious time walking along the Embankment and enjoying the views. It has been a reasonably pleasant Autumn, all things considered; clear skies, warm(ish) sunshine and not too much rain, which is always something to be celebrated! Against the background of a piercing blue sky and framed by the red and gold of flaming foliage, the starkly modernist – some would say brutalist – architecture of the Southbank is shown off at its best. Glinting in the distance are the spires of the city’s oldest and most modern buildings, sitting comfortably alongside one another to demonstrate London’s proud longevity and its continued position as one of the most dynamic and important cities on the planet. There is no better view in my eyes! Southbank’s book market doesn’t often offer up many bargains, but I never can resist a browse. It has to be the book shop with the best view in the city, and it’s always crowded with people, which is a heartwarming sight to see. I made one of my friends buy The Death of the Heart, because I believe everyone should read at least one Elizabeth Bowen novel in their lifetime, and I also treated myself, with a copy of Few Eggs and No Oranges for a bargain £4. I’ve got plans for that book; I’m already subtly drip-feeding Persephone books into my English lessons, and Few Eggs is going to have its turn soon, once I’ve thought of a creative use for it!

After a hearty lunch at Canteen, we split off, with me taking my friend who has just moved to London from ‘up North’ to see the joys of Regent’s Street. I popped into Anthropologie and bought this amazing skirt on sale, and I was tempted by the fabric in Liberty’s, but then remembered that I don’t have time to make anything any more, so I put it back on the shelf! Once we had shopped ourselves out, I led the way to the National Gallery, which should be the first port of call for anyone visiting London in my opinion. Not only do you get a fabulous view of Westminster from the front balcony, you also get to see many of the world’s most famous paintings for free. Free! Plus the cafe is marvellous (though sadly not free). I always try to steer a visit to London towards the National Cafe; you can’t beat their chocolate and coconut muffins with a nice cup of tea while listening to the piano man tinkling away and watching the tourists mill around the lions at the feet of Nelson outside. I also always make a beeline for the 19th century gallery, and this time I was particularly struck by the beauty of Turner’s very autumnal looking skies, as well as the cosy tranquility of Constable’s pastoral scenes. These are very much the background of my life now, and I was reminded of them as I walked through the woods on my way home from the station later that evening, delighting in the Turner-esque pink sky that blazed above the Constable-esque landscape. Season of Mist and Mellow Fruitfulness indeed.

This weekend I was back in London to stay with the gorgeous Miranda and her AMAZING mum Donna, who put on a magnificent spread for Simon, Polly and I. We ate pumpkin spice cake and brownies and scones and sandwiches and quail’s eggs (my first time!) and drank gallons of tea while playing fun games and doing lots of chatting. It was a wonderful afternoon and reminded me of how brilliant the internet can be at bringing together people who would never otherwise have met, but who have so much in common. After tea, Miranda and I went on to the Young Vic to watch their version of Three Sisters. I shouldn’t have had a glass of wine before the performance, because I was practically asleep by the interval. It really wasn’t our cup of tea – all a bit too ‘thesp’ for my liking – and I was ready to slash my wrists by the end. Still, not a bad night out for a tenner and I do enjoy seeing how different directors interpret traditional plays. I am not a fan of rewriting plays to ‘modernise’ them – we don’t feel the need to do this with novels, so why plays? I especially don’t like it when rewriting really means adding in loads of gratuitous swearing, which isn’t ‘edgy’, but just lazy. I’m all for making plays relevant, but I think this can be done without changing the original dialogue, and I don’t see why it was necessary to do so in this case. Miss says – 5/10.

After a lazy Sunday spent chatting with Miranda and Donna about books and life and teaching and all manner of things, and being fed and generally looked after, I got back into my car and drove back home through the Surrey countryside, marvelling at how quickly this landscape has changed from the lusciousness of summer that seems like it was just yesterday. Since I started teaching, the weeks have flown by, and in just a few days it will be November. November! This year has gone too fast. But with the nights drawing in and the cold beginning to descend, it’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book. I am determined to get the balance right with my reading now my first (half) term of teaching is nearly over, and I have decided that I want to have a re-read of the first Persephone book I ever read, Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. Does anyone fancy joining in, for the second week in November? I’d love to have you join me.

A Day at the Paralympics

As we near the end of the London 2012 Games, I know I will look back on this summer as being an unexpectedly lovely, uplifting and heartwarming experience, as I have watched London come alive in celebration of both our country’s heritage and the achievements of the athletes who have come to compete here. I don’t usually get all mushy about these mass participation events, and I certainly wasn’t bothered by the Diamond Jubilee earlier this summer, but something about the Olympics being hosted right under my nose has been so exciting and inspiring. Unlike other such national celebrations in the UK, this hasn’t revolved around the monarchy, but instead has been about celebrating ordinary people with extraordinary abilities who have worked hard to achieve their success, and I for one am very happy to get behind that sentiment.

I have loved walking around London, seeing the signs and flags fluttering, seeing tourists from all over the world with their faces painted in their national colours and flags draped over their shoulders, seeing the Olympic volunteers in their pink and purple tops, seeing the rings and the Agitos symbols in all sorts of prominent places, and generally feeling the buzz of a city united in excitement and enthusiasm, proud of hosting a Games that is being lauded as one of the best since the modern Olympics began. However, as wonderful as soaking up the atmosphere has been, it’s not quite the same as actually getting to see the athletes performing in the flesh. I tried multiple times to get tickets, and had resigned myself to giving up, when last Friday I idly went onto the ticket website and was delighted to see available tickets for the Paralympics at a price I could actually afford on the last day of my holiday before starting work. Perfect! I swooped in and bought tickets for a range of events in the ExCel centre; sadly not in the actual Olympic Park, but an opportunity to see the athletes and the venues was not to be missed regardless!

So, early on Monday morning my mum and I got the train to London and headed out to the ExCel centre, surrounded by similarly excited people with their Team GB tops and flags and caps and all sorts of other patriotic paraphernalia. From the second we arrived at our stop, we were swept up in a wave of high spirits as the tube workers sang and danced their directions to the venue , the volunteers lining the route from the station to the entrance high fived and shouted greetings to us all, and music pumped out amidst the flags and banners depicting the various sports we were about to see. I could barely contain myself as we flashed our tickets and went into our first arena to see the Boccia.

Boccia is – from what I understand – a version of boules played in wheelchairs, and like all Paralympic events, there are different competitions within each event to ensure that athletes are playing against those with similarly matched disabilities. To be honest, it wasn’t the most thrilling event to watch, but this was because we didn’t really understand the scoring system and couldn’t always see the target the players were aiming for! However, it was great to see all the things you see on the TV; the umpires, the cameramen, the press, the coaches, the podiums…and the tears of the medal winners! After watching a couple of Boccia matches, we made our way over to the Table Tennis arena, where we watched a tensely fought match between the British and Slovakian female athletes who were battling for third and fourth place. The crowd were on their feet with every point the British athlete won – sadly she was defeated, but you’d never know from the whoops and cheers coming from the audience! At the same time we watched the Swedish athlete win Gold on the court behind; she was in floods of tears and we all stood up to applaud as she did her lap of honour. It was so lovely to watch someone achieve their dream.

Finally we rushed over to the Sitting Volleyball court to watch the English men’s team play the Germans; always a pairing of countries that guarantees an interesting competition!! We barely managed to get into the arena; it was absolutely packed, which was wonderful to see as I know that traditionally the Paralympics has far fewer spectators than the Olympics, and I think it’s a real shame that disabled athletes aren’t given the same support as their able bodied colleagues. The atmosphere was electric; the action was fast paced, powerful and incredibly tense. Despite a huge amount of support from the stands, the British team lost the match, but they looked absolutely thrilled at the turnout nonetheless and gave us lots of waves and thumbs up from the pitch when the game was over. I’ve never seen disabled athletes compete before, and it really opened my eyes to the diversity of sports there are to enable people who have a huge range of disabilities to participate in athletics, no matter how limited their movement or senses. The Paralympics is no less significant or thrilling as the Olympics, and I hope that London 2012 will pave the way for more high profile and well attended Paralympic competitions in future. I was humbled by the incredible triumph over adversity that I saw and I was thrilled to be able to see London 2012 in action and support our wonderful athletes. I have even been inspired to improve my own fitness…I’ve bought some trainers so who knows where this may lead…you might just see me at Rio 2016!!

Kew Gardens

I’m not much of a gardener. I know a rose from a tulip but that’s about it; I blame my black-fingered mother and growing up with a slab of concrete for a back garden. However, I do appreciate nature, and I love spending time in beautiful gardens where the air is sweet with the scent of flowers and the earth is alive with bursts of coordinated colour. As such, Kew Gardens is a place I’ve been meaning to visit for years; there’s no good reason why I haven’t been, it’s just always been a ‘oh, I’ll go next weekend’ sort of place that I never got around to. Last week I finally had the urge to go, with the delightful company of the lovely Miranda, no less. Hopping off the tube onto a suburban street, I wondered exactly what to expect as I followed the signs past rows of densely packed Victorian houses; where would the Gardens fit amongst all of this urbanity? Eventually I reached a road, opposite which ran a wall so long I couldn’t see where it ended. Peeking over the top were trees upon trees upon trees. Quite the Secret Garden!

Kew covers nine acres and is the world’s largest collection of living plants. Founded in the 18th century, it is a beautiful and often surprising series of different gardens and wooded areas containing plants from various climates and continents, as well as a number of amazing Victorian hothouses containing exotic plants. There is so much to see that we didn’t nearly make it around all of the gardens in a day, and you’d really need several visits to fully appreciate all that is grown here. It’s not just all about the living plants, however; one of my favourite places in the Gardens was the Marianne North Gallery, an exhibition space built in the 19th century to house the collection of botanical paintings made by the intrepid Victorian traveller Marianne North on her journeys around the world. On walking into this purpose built red brick villa, you are hit with a wall of glorious colour, as painting after painting, rising to the ceiling, unfurls before you. There are scenes from many countries all over the world, as well as painstakingly detailed images of flowers and plants that are amazingly lifelike. It’s a real treasure house, and a shame that it’s not more widely known.

I loved walking in the hothouses, where there are some incredible looking plants that could easily come out of the pages of a Boy’s Own Adventure story; brightly coloured, spiky, oozing with foul smelling liquid, they rise to monster-like heights and dangle down from the glass ceilings that are dripping with condensation. We climbed one of the cast iron spiral staircases to the roof; with every step the humidity increased, and when we reached the top and wandered along the gallery, I felt like I was back in the oppressive heat of a New York summer, struggling to breathe as my clothes began to stick to my skin. It’s amazing that we can create these conditions to enable plants that were once in chattering, humid rainforests to survive here in the cold and damp British climate. If I half closed my eyes and imagined away the cast iron pillars and the crowds of visitors, I could almost have been in the rainforest myself.

Back in the cool fresh air, we enjoyed wandering in the woods while peacocks roamed around us, catching glimpses of the tall pagoda, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage and Kew Palace, popping into the Alpine Garden and walking around the beautiful lake. At Kew you can truly appreciate the wonder and variety of the natural world, and marvel at the skill and vision required to ensure that these plants survive and flourish in innovative and aesthetically beautiful settings. They don’t deny the tastebuds, either; The Orangery restaurant has delicious cakes, and Miranda and I enjoyed a lovely afternoon tea overlooking a lawn where they had ingeniously planted flowers in the shape and colours of the Olympic Rings. I know I’ll be back again soon!

London 2012

If you’d said the word ‘Olympics’ to me a week ago, I would have launched into a tirade of moaning worthy of any Gold medal. Tickets? I didn’t get any, despite being a Londoner born and bred. Transport chaos? Tell me about it – Transport for London couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. Legacy? Do me a favour – who is going to go to Stratford to use a velodrome once the games are over? However, something very strange came over me on Friday night. Sitting alone on the sofa, I switched on the TV to watch the Opening Ceremony, as there was nothing else on and I was interested to see what it would all look like. As the strains of Elgar’s Nimrod filled the stadium and hordes of volunteers dressed up as the labourers of the Industrial Revolution marched in, I found myself welling up with tears. Then there were drums, and giant chimneys, and WW1 soldiers, and speeches from Shakespeare…followed by Mary Poppins bouncing on the beds of children in Great Ormond Street Hospital…and then Land of Hope of Glory sung by a choir…and then a beautiful memorial to the victims of the Tube bombings, which happened the day after London was chosen as the Olympic city…and finally everyone on their feet singing the British end-of-any-big-night Classic, Hey, Jude. As the ceremony drew to a close, I was a crying mess, thankful that no one was there to witness this so un British display of sentiment brought about by a ridiculous but wonderful start to an Olympics I had never felt remotely bothered about. Suddenly I found myself feeling proud, even enthusiastic, about my city hosting the Games. After months of moaning, I finally felt like celebrating. And all it took was a bit of Elgar and some chimneys. I’m a soft touch, clearly.

Today I was in town to meet the lovely Miranda, and my spirit of Olympic cheer became even more buoyant as I saw flags everywhere and hordes of excited tourists dressed in Olympic gear, revelling in the sights I have long taken for granted. There was a real buzz of excitement in the air, and with the shop windows filled with red white and blue, the fluttering flags, the Olympic mascots and everything looking so clean and tidy, I couldn’t help but feel proud of how fantastic it all is. After Miranda and I had been to the From Paris exhibition at the RA and had a delicious spot of lunch at Rose Bakery, we parted ways and I wandered off down to Southbank to soak up the atmosphere and meet up with another friend. Southbank was absolutely packed with people enjoying the sun and the variety of entertainment put on by the various arts institutions along this stretch of the river. Floating on the river itself were the Olympic rings, glinting merrily in front of the impressive array of iconic buildings laid out along the river bank. As I helped tourists take photos, I couldn’t help but feel blessed that this scenery has been the background of my life, and seeing all these people from other countries delight in it has given me a fresh appreciation for how truly impressive and beautiful London is.

After checking out the books on the Southbank Book Market, I met my friend and we wandered up the river to Tower Bridge, from which the Olympic rings are currently hanging. It looks marvellous, and so iconic. Next to Tower Bridge is a mini park called Potter’s Field, and here a big screen has been erected for the public to come together and view the action. As the sun came out, we sat down to watch the men’s synchronised diving; sadly no medals for Team GB, but an impressive event nonetheless. However, the best was yet to come.  As I am at every Olympics, I have been absolutely glued to the gymnastics since they began on Saturday. I think there is no greater demonstration of human strength and skill than gymnastics – it takes my breath away every time and I can’t get enough! I am the best armchair gymnast you’ll ever meet – double double? Spiked landing? Double pike? Triple somersault? Forward half twist? I can spot them all. So, when the men’s team final came on, I was beside myself. Team GB was fighting for a Bronze – and what performances! Together the crowd cheered and clapped, winced and gasped, waited and hoped. It was announced we had Bronze – we all stood up, whooped and cheered, amazed at the feat our men had achieved – no British team has even made it into the final for over 80 years, let alone won a medal! Then, disaster on the other side of the arena- the final Japanese competitor fell off his pommel horse. Gasps followed by a deafening roar filled the stadium – it was announced that, due to the final error by the Japanese, they had dropped into fourth and we had won Silver! We all jumped up and down, clapping wildly – we couldn’t believe it! Then, it all came crashing down. The Japanese contested the judges’ scoring on their final pommel horse routine. What had looked very much like a fall should have been classed as a dismount due to both feet touching the floor, and scored accordingly. After an agonising ten minute wait for news, to a chorus of boos the Japanese appeal was approved, and we dropped back to Bronze. What was in itself an amazing achievement suddenly appeared second best, which was a real shame. Nevertheless it was wonderful to watch the final on the big screen, surrounded by other fans – not quite as good as actually being there, but still a brilliant experience. I loved every minute!

Later on, walking back to the station across the Golden Jubilee Bridge, I took a moment to stop and enjoy the view. The sky was pink, St Paul’s shone majestically in the distance, and the Olympic rings glowed softly as they bobbed up and down on the river. The bridge was crowded with people from all nationalities enjoying the same view, and it really was lovely to see. I might not have any tickets (last night loads more were released, and I stayed up until 2am trying to get just about affordable gymnastics tickets, putting them in my basket and then waiting ages in a series of virtual ‘queues’, only to then be told that they were all sold out – CRUSHING) but I can still enjoy the Olympics nonetheless. I love the atmosphere of patriotism and bonhomie that it has brought to London, giving us all a much needed reminder of the many things we as a nation have to celebrate and be proud of. Politically and financially it’s been a tough couple of years, and having something positive to focus on that unites everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from, is a pleasant change from protests and prejudice. I am a total convert. Go Team GB!