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London Culture

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I love a good cultural outing, and I’ve been up to a fair bit lately in London, which has a range of fantastic plays and exhibitions on offer at the moment. Popping to see a collection of beautiful paintings or an engrossing play is the perfect antidote to the monochrome February skies that weigh so heavily on the spirit.

In half term I took full advantage of my lovely week of holiday to catch up on some of the things I had been meaning to get to for a while. Firstly, I took my nephews to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, so that we could all learn about space; this was not massively successful in that three boys under 8 are always liable to cause some kind of disaster wherever they go, and before we’d barely walked into the building I was having to rush us past the damage they’d inflicted on a meteorite that had managed to survive for several billion years before these little cherubs had bulldozed their way into it, but they did love the Planetarium, where we watched a fascinating show on Dark Space and the Quantum Universe. Even the littlest of my babies, who is 3, was transfixed by the stars above his head and I was very impressed by the clear yet still cerebrally challenging voiceover that explained a lot of the theory I had seen displayed via the medium of peas and carrots in the excellent The Theory of Everything. If you’ve got any passing interest in space, whether you’ve got kids in tow or not, a day out at the Royal Observatory and Planetarium is highly recommended. It makes a nice change from an art museum, plus, it’s right in the heart of Greenwich Park, which offers glorious sweeping views across the London skyline as well as acres of greenery to explore. Greenwich itself is also well worth a visit; you can have fun hopping over the line where time begins, have a look around its other major museum, the National Maritime Museum, wander around the famous indoor market (if you’re there on the weekend), climb aboard the historic ship Cutty Sark, get the best ice-cream in London at Phillies (almost next to the enormous 18th century church, St Alfege), walk under the Thames via the Edwardian foot tunnel between Greenwich and Poplar, and take a boat back down the river to Westminster, which will offer you glorious views of the city.

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My next museum visit was to the much anticipated Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Singer Sargent is probably my favourite artist (though sometimes I decide I prefer Boldini – his portraits have such energy, such as this one) and I couldn’t wait to see a good amount of his remarkable portraits together in one place. I am lucky in that I have been spoiled through having lived and travelled widely in the US; Boston’s Fine Art museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have exquisite collections of his work, and I will never forget seeing The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit alongside those massive vases in the enormous room they are in (were in? I haven’t been back for a few years…can anyone enlighten me?) at the Museum of Fine Arts. There are also several very good Sargents in New York, and my absolute favourite Sargent (Lady Agnew) is in Edinburgh, which I saw a couple of years ago and was utterly mesmerised by.

The Portrait Gallery showcases, in my opinion, two particularly outstanding pieces; Dr Pozzi at Home, and Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, which are truly breathtaking, but the others were not particularly exciting and nor were they particularly representative of Sargent at his best, in my opinion. I was disappointed that more works had not been borrowed from foreign collections, and, as I often find at British exhibitions these days, many of the paintings were from the Tate, where they would have been free to view at any time prior to the exhibition anyway. I know all of the reviews have been glowing, but for me, the exhibition was a big disappointment. It was housed in too small a space, too many people had been allowed in at the same time, making it very difficult to see the works, and the price, at £16, was extortionate for what was on offer. When I think of all the portraits of artists and friends of Sargent I have seen around the world, this exhibition was utterly lacklustre. I felt very short changed indeed. Where I did not feel short changed, however, was next door, at the National Gallery, where there is a fantastic free exhibition of the Norwegian artist Peder Balke’s beautiful landscapes of 19th century Scandinavia. I was utterly mesmerised by his amazing depictions of the sea and sky and, as I am going on a whistlestop tour of Denmark, Sweden and Norway over Easter, it made me very excited for the beauty I am sure I will see when I am there.

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More success was had at the theatre; I very much enjoyed Di and Viv and Rose, which was funny and moving and so very true about female friendships, and hilarious about the experience of being at university. It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in town. I also saw Tom Stoppard’s new play at the National, The Hard Problem, which I found thought provoking, though somewhat formulaic and simplistic, which I was surprised by, as Tom Stoppard has been harping on about theatre audiences not being as clever as they used to be and not ‘getting’ his cultural and scientific references, which made me worried that I was going to be the Dunce in the back of the theatre. In actuality, I don’t think I missed anything (probably because I’ve been reading up on Quantum Physics as my latest intellectual sideline – before you think I’m a genius, I’m essentially poring over Quantum Physics for Dummies), and I actually found the science and philosophy behind the action very basic and rather cliched. The play was also utterly lacking in heart, which I do tend to think is rather a theme of Tom Stoppard’s plays; I remember seeing Arcadia in New York and thinking it was the most intellectually engaging play I’d ever seen, but it didn’t move me in the slightest. I’m all for thinking and and being challenged to consider the deeper meanings beneath our existence, but I do wish that Stoppard would inject a little more passion and personality into his characters. The actors did their best with what were essentially just types, and though the action sped by and I was absorbed in the plot, I left not really feeling anything, and personally, that’s what I go to the theatre for. I like my throat to tighten and my hand to flutter nervously to my chest; I don’t want to be a dispassionate observer of events. But the rest of the audience seemed to think it was marvellous, so you can take from that what you will. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes with people like Stoppard. The theatrical equivalent of Damien Hirst, perhaps?

Looking forward to the next few weeks, I’m excited to go to the new exhibition at Two Temple Place, which is just as interesting to visit for the building as for what it houses. I also can’t wait for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A, which will be especially interesting as I saw its original incarnation at the Met back in 2011, and I’m intrigued by the Tate’s exhibition of early photography, Salt and Silver. I’ve got tickets booked for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic, and for Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National, so I shall be quite the culture vulture as I wait for the weather to warm up and the skies to brighten!

Caught by Henry Green

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I would have to say that Henry Green is probably amongst the best of the many literary discoveries I have made over the past few years. I thought that Loving was an absolutely marvellous feat of characterisation, and though I didn’t very much enjoy Partygoing, again, the characters were all so brilliantly individualised that I couldn’t help but find myself engaged with the story being told. Caught is, rather like the other two Greens I have read, a rather strange and stifling novel in many ways, with its fluid movement between past and present and seedy, claustrophobic setting amidst the backstreets of London during the Blitz. However, Green’s ability to make his characters utterly real and utterly vital renders the difficulties of the prose completely worth grappling with. He is similar to Elizabeth Bowen in that he enjoys making the reader work, but the pleasure of unravelling the beautifully crafted sentences and hearing the voices of the diverse range of characters come alive in your mind makes it an adventure to read their novels rather than a slog. If you haven’t read either, then you are definitely missing out.

Caught is the story of Richard Roe, a well-to-do auxiliary fireman who joins the fire service in London just before the war. His wife has died, leaving him with a young son, Christopher. Shortly after his wife dies, Christopher’s son is taken by a mentally ill woman while out shopping with his Nanny, and though Christopher is promptly found and returned by the woman’s brother, the affair is made much worse by the fact that the woman’s brother turns out to be Pye, the man in charge of Richard’s fire station when he joins up to be a fireman. Subsequent relations between the men are strained, as Pye cannot recover from the shame of what his sister has done and Pye is a constant reminder to Richard of his wife’s absence. The intense emotional lives of these two very different men: one upper class, one working class, yet both desperately unhappy, form the centre of a novel that shows the many ways in which individuals can become caught up in lives that provide them with little of the happiness they hoped for.

Aside from these two characters, there are plenty of other intriguing figures who populate the fire station, providing a colourful and atmospheric depiction of wartime London. Cockney Piper is the oldest fireman at the station, who has a story for every situation and no recognition of how he bores the socks off the other men. Hilly and the cooks, the station’s female representatives, form a band of three against the rest of the men, and perplex Pye with their emotional scenes and irrational prejudices. The motley crew of mostly working class, Cockney firemen, with nothing to do but sit around and wait for some real action to start, spend most of their time in the pub, finding women to sleep with, or complaining about those in charge. Their days and nights are passed in the blacked-out, sour smelling dungeon that is the fire station, and such close contact leads to the festering of personal frustrations and petty gossip, with rumours causing far more smoke than any real fire. For much of the novel, absolutely nothing happens; it is all mere anticipation. This suspension of action allows for the rich and fascinating tapestry of human relationships to take centre stage, and Green’s seemingly effortless ability to capture the voices of so many different people is what makes this such a fantastic novel that simply teems with life.

There is much more than this that I can’t tell you, otherwise I’d ruin it for you, but even so, Caught is the sort of book you read for the writing, not for the story; the narrative itself is confusing, disjointed and ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. However, the experience of being immersed completely in the underground world of wartime London more than makes up for the lack of plot, and if you want to enjoy wallowing in gorgeous prose and have your imagination set on fire, then this is exactly the book for you.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray

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This is one of Persephone’s newest batch of books, and is an evocative, sensitively written and powerfully moving novel that was a pure pleasure to read. I raced through it in two sittings, and even found myself having a little cry at the end, which is always a sign of a good book. It is the story of forty something Helen, a thinly fictionalised Rosalind, whose early life set against an idyllic yet rather unconventional background of wealth, intellect and privilege is destroyed by the First World War. She grows up with her two much-loved cousins; confident, talented Guy and sensitive, introverted Hugh, at Yearsley, a beautiful Georgian manor house in the country made up of honey-coloured, flower-filled rooms furnished in faded chintz where it seems to be forever summer. Helen and Hugh share a particular closeness; they understand one another completely, and as they grow older and more self-aware, it is clear that their feelings run much deeper than that of brother and sister. However, this knowledge pushes them apart as they enter their teen years, and unable to manage their emotions, they spend less and less time together. Before long, Helen is left alone as Guy and Hugh go up to Oxford, but after she finishes school, she enjoys being part of their cosmopolitan, intellectual crowd in Oxford and London, where they all gravitate as they enter their twenties.

Life is full of friendship, fun and frivolity, but beneath the surface of this seemingly privileged existence, Helen is haunted by the distance between herself and Hugh. Knowing she cannot have him, she drifts into a relationship with Walter, a rather dry and earnest academic, who, much to the chagrin of her friends and family, she marries. Shortly afterwards, war breaks out, and Helen must watch her beloved cousins and friends go off to fight, while she struggles alone with the responsibility of a growing family in her grotty house in North London. Life, which once seemed so full of beauty and possibility, has irreparably darkened. She doesn’t love Walter, life has become a daily grind of childcare and housework, and the war is a greedy spectre, sucking joy and hope from the world. As the inevitable casualties start to roll in, Helen, consumed with grief and regret, is devastated to realise that her world as she knew it has been destroyed, and there will be no going back.

I think what made me find this book so touching is because really it isn’t about war at all, but more the way in which life often takes us in directions we didn’t plan for, leaving us cast adrift from the vision of the future we believed we would have. There is a tone of such melancholy in Murray’s words, perfectly exemplified when she says ‘And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.’ The lost opportunities, the private sorrows, the secret grief that courses under the surface of all of the perfectly ordinary people we see every day…it’s really quite an overwhelming thought. As such, The Happy Tree, despite its name, is not exactly an uplifting read, but it’s certainly a thought provoking, searingly honest portrayal of a woman’s life, and I loved every minute. I wish Rosalind Murray’s other novels were easier to come by, as her writing is definitely something I’d love to explore further.

Where the Chartered Thames Does Flow

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Of late I have been enjoying some glorious journeys along the Thames, exploring the stories the buildings on its banks tell about the changing neighbourhoods it passes on its course through London. Just before Christmas, I finally got around to taking the cable car between Royal Victoria Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula, home of the Millennium Dome (or O2 stadium, as it’s now known). It’s a short ride, but a fascinating one. South East London is the most rapidly expanding and gentrifying area of London, and the amount of building going on in areas that were formerly scrubby wastelands is quite overwhelming. The skyline is dotted with the heads of cranes, and the constant emergence of yet more shimmering skyscrapers and executive apartment buildings has invited a distinctly different demographic to the streets. However, when you are up in the air, looking down over the muddy riverbanks that are crowded with warehouses, factories and boats, it is clear to see that South East London is still very much characterised by its industrial roots. Here the Thames remains a working river, exemplified by the silver sails of the Thames Barrier peeking above the surface of the water. All of this industry might be hidden from tourists, but it is vital to the life of the city, and has a certain aesthetic appeal of its own.

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Last weekend, I went to the Tate to catch the Turner exhibition before it closes, and decided to walk along the river from Waterloo rather than catch the tube. I normally walk on the Westminster side of the bridge, but this time I walked along the other side before crossing the river at Lambeth Bridge, and I noticed Lambeth Palace for the first time. This is the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with much of the building dating back to Tudor times. I stopped and stared at it for ages, completely mesmerised by this wonderful time capsule that is now marooned amongst a tangle of traffic lights and ugly 1980s office buildings. Half way across the bridge, I stopped to turn back, and was amazed at what I could see. The buildings in front of me were a physical map of London’s history. To my right, the Victorian obsession with the medieval exemplified in the Gothic Revival masterpiece that is the Houses of Parliament. To my left, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie and the spindly red heads of cranes building more skyscrapers poking above the skyline, symbols of modern capitalism. In front of them, the red brick Tudor gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, witness to the development of a city that has changed beyond recognition since it was built. This is what I love about London; there is always something new to discover, and every building tells such a fascinating story about how this city has evolved and adapted to the world around it. The past is just as alive as the present.

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By the time I was finished in the Tate, darkness had fallen, and the river had changed now it was being viewed under a different light. My mind filled with pictures of Turner’s amazing depictions of light in his work towards the end of his life, I was extra sensitive to the way the artificial lights from the surrounding buildings reflected on the water and contributed to the shifting sense of purpose of the river as night descends. It becomes a place of romance, of mystery, as the light dances across the surface and its depths become unfathomable. Facing Vauxhall, the hyper-modern buildings set against the black waters made London look sleek and futuristic; I could almost have been in Hong Kong. Facing Westminster, however, the soft glow of the Houses of Parliament in the darkling evening light provided such a quintessential vision of England that it would have been impossible for me to imagine I was anywhere else. As I made my way back to the Southbank to meet a friend for dinner, I found myself walking under a haze of fairy lights and the neon glow of the signs attached to the brutalist structures of the National Theatre and Southbank Centre. This section of the river, built solely for the purpose of entertainment and to regenerate a London destroyed by war, is always filled with crowds of people enjoying themselves and the views the promenade offers. It’s amazing how, within the space of a few miles, the Thames transforms from the industrial wasteland I saw on my cable car ride to a cultural metropolis. Walking along its banks is certainly an education, and a way to see London through fresh eyes.

Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

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When I think about Germany, my first association is always war, followed by Nazis, followed by concentration camps. I imagine that most people who aren’t German would have the same response. So, when I heard that the British Museum was putting on an exhibition about German history and culture, and that there would be an accompanying book and radio series, I was excited to have the opportunity to widen my understanding of Germany as a nation and move beyond the limited view of the country as a place of conflict and terror. I was also interested to see how German people have, in recent years, dealt with their past, especially as there has been so much memorialisation of WWI in Britain lately. Our 20th century history and culture is very much bound up in notions of victory, of tenacity, of bravery, of standing up against evil; how must it feel for your country’s history to be laced with defeat, destruction and guilt? How is that worked into the narrative of a country’s culture, and how does that affect the way Germans feel about their nationhood? There was so much I wanted to find out, and I wondered whether Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, could answer all of these questions for me. I was delighted to find that he could, as well as giving me much more to think about besides.

The book is organised into six sections, working on a roughly chronological basis through Germany’s history, looking at its most famous sons and daughters as well as its considerable artistic, political, industrial and cultural contributions to the world. Each chapter within the six sections is hinged around a particular object and the story it tells, and all of these objects are on view in the exhibition. It is over 500 pages long, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of things that I found most interesting to tell you about. Firstly, I loved discovering more about the shifting make-up of Germany as a country. For hundreds of years it was a collection of states and principalities encompassing what is now modern day Germany as well as parts of France, Scandinavia, Russia, Austria, Hungary and the Baltic. Overseen centrally by the Holy Roman Emperor, each state was largely autonomous. There was no ‘Germany’ as we know it now, but merely a ‘German people’, linked by a shared language rather than a shared nation, history or culture. This disparate nature of Germany prevents it from having a unified version of history or cultural identity, especially as the constant re-drawing of the borders of Germanic states means that much of what were traditionally Germanic speaking regions are now fully assimilated into other countries. I have always taken it for granted that I can read a history book about England and find an easy, linear account of its development over time; German people do not have that privilege. Theirs is a history of states and regions, with their own cultures, customs and histories that vary enormously. This is seen most powerfully in the monuments in some German cities, which commemorate victories against what are now other parts of Germany. As such, one city’s hero is another’s villain; one city’s victory is another’s humilating defeat. The famous Valhalla monument to the heroes and heroines of the German-speaking lands, built by King Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, is a perfect example of this, with many of the busts placed inside having caused considerable debate as to their worthiness by people from different parts of Germany. MacGregor’s discussion of Germany’s historic make-up being a precursor to the EU was of particular insight, and reveals why Germany is such a supporter of it. Germany as a united nation has only existed for less than 30 years; it is in its blood to be part of a wider collection of states, held together by a common purpose. In comparison, many British people are vehemently anti-EU, and considering our long history of being an independent island nation, this offers an intriguing insight into how historical identities can subconsciously affect people’s emotional responses to governing bodies.

I also found it fascinating to read about modern German history, and the ways in which the guilt of the atrocities of Hitler’s regime have been handled. Germany is a country of very few war memorials, for obvious reasons, yet those that are in place speak of a nation profoundly ashamed at what it has been responsible for. Many of their most famous memorials are of weeping, grief stricken figures that exemplify a sense of loss and sadness, both for what the people had suffered – their children were killed too – but also for what they had caused others to suffer. Unlike in other countries, where statues and memorials commemorate victory and honour, Germany’s monuments commemorate their recognition of a need for change.  It is a brave nation that is willing to confront its troubled past and make a public commitment to ensuring that such atrocities never happen again, and in Germany now, with a new generation emerging who have not grown up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, there is an excitement in the air, as the ability to forge a new national identity, free from the shame of the past, becomes possible.

This is genuinely one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and using it to guide me through the equally fantastic exhibition enabled me to really contextualise the objects that are on display and understand more fully why they had been chosen and what they revealed. Once I’d finished reading, I felt enlightened, educated and eager to find out even more. I can sense a trip to Germany coming up in 2015 – if only I hadn’t forgotten all of my GCSE German! If you can’t make it to the exhibition, which closes on the 25th of January, then I can’t recommend the book, and the accompanying radio series, which can still be listened to here, highly enough.