May 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The Regent’s Canal has been one of my favourite places in London for almost as long as I’ve lived here. I first discovered it when I was doing my junior year abroad at UCL, when (and I still can’t believe how much I took this for granted at the time) I lived within easy walking distance of Regent’s Park. For a long time, the only stretch of it I knew was arguably the most picturesque, the section between Camden Lock and Little Venice.
Now that I live on the other side of London and one of my favourite canal-related places to go is Broadway Market, it’s the stretch between Haggerston overground and Broadway Market that forms the backdrop of my canal walks. This part of the canal is dingier and more industrial, but it has a different beauty all its own.
This was my walk, on a cold Saturday six weeks ago, along that part of the canal.
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, wide-angle lens, Lady Grey 400 film)
May 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My track record with William Morris-related museums is a bit spotty. I’ve been to the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (although not since its restoration), and I’m on friendly terms with the V&A’s collection of his work and designs. But when it comes to his houses, that’s another story. I have cousins who live near Kelmscott Manor, but we seem to be under a family Kelmscott curse: every time we’ve attempted to visit it, it’s been shut – once due to flooding, a couple of times due to it being the wrong day of the week. Another time we went for a walk along the Thames Path and turned up just in time to see a member of staff putting up the ‘closed’ sign.
That can be put down to bad luck, but my not having made it to either Kelmscott House or the Red House is no fault but my own, which is why I put them both on my London Museum Challenge. Last weekend I finally made it to Kelmscott House.
The way to the house is simple – a five-minute walk from Ravenscourt Park tube – but rather disheartening, as it involves taking an underpass under the traffic-clogged A4 which passes perilously close to the house. (I can imagine Morris would have a few choice words to say about this development.) But once you’re past the roar of the A4 and you reach the river, it’s actually not much of a stretch to believe you’re back in the late 19th century. Kelmscott House is set in the middle of a terrace that runs right along a quiet stretch of the river. The green bulk of Hammersmith Bridge is visible a short way downriver, but apart from that, it’s easy to believe that you’re out of London.
Most of Kelmscott House is privately owned – the William Morris Society occupies the coach house and the kitchen, and that’s it. The space is divided into four small rooms – an exhibition space (on my visit, devoted to a display on May Morris), a small library with a few pieces of Morris & Co furniture, a shop and – the most interesting part, in my view – the original press, on which the Kelmscott Chaucer was printed. (I was thrilled to discover that it was made by the same manufacturer as the press I’d used on my printmaking course. Oh dear, I really am an incurable print geek…) Someone was demonstrating its use, and although I’d used such a press before myself, to print linocuts, I’d never seen it being used for images and letterpress, so that was worth the visit in itself. A facsimile edition of the Kelmscott Chaucer sits on a shelf nearby for visitors to flip through. Even though I’ve always admired the book, I don’t think I truly appreciated the work that went into its creation until I saw it next to the still-working press.
…And that was the end of the visit. At the risk of inciting the wrath of the William Morris Society, I can’t say that Kelmscott House added a great deal to my knowledge and appreciation of Morris. It probably won’t ever be the most essential stop on a Morris enthusiast’s itinerary. But getting to see the press, and a bit of London that, at least in some ways, hasn’t changed dramatically since his day, were well worth a brief detour into Hammersmith.
Now on to the Red House…
Tally: 11 down, 12 to go
May 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Boris Vian holds the dubious and bizarre distinction of being the only writer ever to have been killed by a bad adaptation of one of his books. Okay, a heart attack was what actually killed him, but it was brought on by seeing the film version of his novel I Spit on Your Grave, whose production he had never authorised in the first place. (His last words, before he collapsed in the cinema, were supposedly ‘These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!’)
Vian’s masterpiece (and my favourite of his novels) is L’Ecume des jours, and unlike the pulpy, violent I Spit on Your Grave, it seems as if it should be unfilmable. Fantastical and absurd, it’s peppered with surreal wordplay (one of the most memorable examples being the pianocktail, a modified piano that produces cocktails based on whatever jazz tune you care to play – just don’t play anything too ‘hot’ or it will cook the whipped egg white and you’ll end up with bits of omelette in your drink) that often stumps the translator. (The title itself is a case in point – a literal translation would be The Foam of the Days but various English translators have come up with Foam of the Daze, Froth on the Daydream and even – in homage to Duke Ellington, whose music plays a central role in the book – Mood Indigo.) A film was made in the 1968, after Vian was safely dead (I haven’t seen it, but judging from the stills it looks not only dire, but terribly late 60s, not at all in the 1950s/sci-fi spirit of the book), an opera in 1981 and another film adaptation, this time in Japanese, in 2001. But that was it… until last year, when I heard that yet another film adaptation was in the works. I was worried until I found out that it was being directed by Michel Gondry, and then I was ecstatic. If any director was ever born to bring L’Ecume de jours to the screen, it’s Gondry.
The whimsicality and the handmade sensibility that Gondry brought to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep isn’t exactly the same as Vian’s cockeyed and occasionally macabre worldview, but it’s a beautiful match. Gondry’s adaptation succeeds not because he’s slavishly faithful to the letter of his material, but because he’s true to its spirit. The cast is a perfect example. Colin, the hero, a young man of independent means who spends his days in idle pursuits like inventing the above-mentioned pianocktail and hanging out with his philosophy-obsessed friend Chick, is described by Vian as a blond matinee-idol type (with hair like apricot jam combed through with a fork!). Nobody would ever mistake Romain Duris, dark and joli-laid, for a matinee idol, but then there’s probably no other French actor of his generation who can do comedy and tragedy with equal flair – essential for Colin, whose carefree life begins to disintegrate when his beloved Chloe falls ill with a water lily in her lung. Audrey Tautou brings exactly the right sweet fragility to Chloe, but I found her a bit sparkier than the original in the novel (a change of which I thoroughly approve). And Omar Sy as Nicolas, the imperturbable Jeeves to Colin’s Wooster, while not whom I would have imagined in the role (to be fair, that’s only because I hadn’t seen any of his previous films), was pitch-perfect.
Unlike the previous adaptation, Gondry remains faithful to the book’s twisted 1950s aesthetic, while at the same time cleverly suggesting that the story takes place in some sort of time bubble in the present: Colin and Chloe’s first date takes place partly at the recently demolished Forum des Halles, with all the passersby in contemporary dress, and when, later in the film, Nicolas begins to age rapidly as a side effect of the shrinking and decay of Colin and Chloe’s flat (which contracts as her illness worsens), his horrified niece waves his passport at him saying ‘it says you’re 47!’ and his birth date is shown as 1965. Equally vital is Gondry’s DIY approach. There’s scarcely any CGI wizardry. Nicolas’s eye-popping culinary creations are obviously crafted from fabric and cotton wool and animated by hand; the sequence where the frost flower that develops into the deadly water lily invades Chloe’s lungs plays out in a heart and lungs constructed from velvet and satin. In contrast with this obvious, wonky handcraft is the subtlety of the cinematography. Gondry starts with a bright, sundrenched palette; as the film begins to slide inexorably into tragedy the colours gradually drain away until our last glimpse of Colin in the cemetery after Chloe’s funeral in black and white and smudgy, tear-blurred greys.
Well, maybe some of the blurriness was down to me. There are very few occasions I’ve ever come out of a film with tears in my eyes and an ear-to-ear grin, but this is one of them. L’Ecume des jours, the film, is every bit the masterpiece that L’Ecume des jours, the novel, is.
I’d like to think that Boris Vian, wherever he is, is smiling.
May 9, 2013 § 2 Comments
Let me take you down, ‘cos I’m going to Strawberry Hill,
Nothing is real…
Sorry, couldn’t resist. And yes, I’m well aware that Strawberry Hill, the Gothic revival house built by Horace Walpole in what was once the countryside outside London, is not to be confused with Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army children’s home in Liverpool that inspired one of the Beatles’ most surreal songs, but the line ‘nothing is real’ could apply with equal justice to both.
What you need to know, if you visit Strawberry Hill, is that it is both a reconstruction and a work in progress. Walpole – politician, novelist, art historian and all-round polymath – began building it in 1749 as a country villa, as a showcase for his collections, and as one of the first attempts to revive Gothic architecture (albeit in a fairly eccentric fashion). Less than a century later, his heirs sold off almost the entire contents of the house. (The carved limewood cravat that Walpole used to greet his visitors in as a joke is now in the V&A, a good chunk of his library now belongs to Yale, and as for the rest, the search is still on.) In 1923 the college next door bought it. Only six years ago did restoration start, the curators and conservators relying on contemporary watercolours and prints to get a sense of what the rooms looked like in Walpole’s day. Although a decent proportion of the rooms are now open to the public, a second phase of restoration is now taking place (due to finish in a couple of years).
So this blinding white pile is doubly unreal – definitely not real Gothic, but a creative and highly individual reinterpretation of it, and also not composed of all the same materials as it was when Walpole lived in it. That isn’t to say it feels fake, far from it. I’ve visited Carcassonne and couldn’t wait to leave, it felt so wrong. Strawberry Hill feels as if it still contains Walpole’s mischievous spirit even if the plaster and gilt didn’t actually witness his passage.
Unlike country homes that were built purely for the owners’ private pleasure, Walpole always envisioned Strawberry Hill as a place to welcome visitors. The rooms are arranged, with a great sense of theatre, in an order designed to surprise and delight, and they still do. The Gallery is a case in point. The room steward* opens the door and you suddenly find yourself in a fairy chamber of red damask and gilded fan vaults (which, unlike their precedents in Westminster Abbey, are made not of stone but of papier mâché). The Tribune (one of the rooms Walpole constructed specifically for displaying small objects in cases) is based on part of another church – York Minster – in a similar combination of delicacy and flamboyance. With the bright palette and the sheer amount of gilding, it is, dare I say it, a sort of Rococo Gothic.
The garden, sadly, is one part of Strawberry Hill that can never be restored to its former state. When Walpole bought the land, it stretched all the way down to the Thames and the view, as captured in contemporary prints, was sweeping and bucolic. Now it’s cut off by several streets’ worth of houses, and although some of the original plantings of trees are being revived, it will probably never be more than a shadow of its original self. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, though, there is some compensation – the café, which calls itself… wait for it… The Committee of Taste. They were offering cherry-red wine sorbet and white chocolate-pistachio ice cream the day I visited. A scoop of each, a pot of tea and a seat under one of the young trees and you can imagine that nothing has changed… well, almost.
*One of the more peculiar aspects of Strawberry Hill (at least among country houses I’ve visited) is that each room has its own steward whose job is to give you a brief introduction, answer your questions and perform door-opening duties. The quality of steward I found to be somewhat variable (some were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, some… well, less so) but the one constant was that none of them did a desperately good job of selling The Castle of Otranto – most of them admitted never having read it and the one who did said, in not so many words, ‘don’t bother’. Still, I do like a good Gothic novel now and then, so maybe I’ll disregard this collective lack of enthusiasm and give it a go someday…
Tally: 10 down, 13 to go
April 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
This is another tale of a missed opportunity finally put right. Nine and a half years ago (I feel old writing this), when I started my PhD, I shared a house with seven other students in Stoke Newington. The bus I took into college went down Kingsland Road, past the Geffrye Museum, and twice a day I thought to myself ‘I should visit that sometime.’ I expect you can guess what happened. A year later, I moved to Paris for a term and when I returned to London I ended up in Highbury and the Geffrye Museum was never, ever on my route anywhere again. (Even if it had been, one law of London life that appears to be emerging from these posts is that the more times you pass something on the bus, the less likely you are to ever actually get off the bus and visit it.)
Now that I live in Crystal Palace the Geffrye Museum is once again on my route to somewhere I go with reasonable frequency (Broadway Market – and yes, Crystal Palace is a lot further away from it than Highbury, that’s the vagaries of London transport for you) and on the first sunny Sunday in ages, I hopped off the Overground at Hoxton and in all of two minutes I was finally inside the Geffrye’s gates.
The Geffrye describes itself as a museum of the home, but it’s rather more specific than that. It’s a museum of the middle-class English home – to be precise, the hall/parlour/living room – from the 17th century to the present. (Though I guess ‘museum of the middle-class English living room’ is a bit of a mouthful.) The exhibits, set in the shell of an 18th-century almshouse, are arranged as a series of period rooms interspersed with more didactic displays that unpick various aspects of domestic life in a particular period. Among the many fascinating tidbits I picked up was the origin of the expression ‘burning the candle at both ends’ – rushlights (dried rushes dipped in tallow or grease) were the cheapest form of candle in the 17th century, but if held vertically their flame was rather dim. Tip the candle horizontally and light both ends, and it burns much brighter – but also faster.
As for the rooms themselves… well, I’ve always had a huge weakness for period rooms (I don’t know how many hours I spent looking at the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago as a child, but it must run into the hundreds) so I was in heaven. I especially liked how the curators (or designers?) took the trouble to make them look lived in with a few subtle touches – an interrupted card game in the 1790 parlour, a half-written letter in the 1695 one. My favourites? The 1890 Aesthetic drawing room (whose inhabitants have apparently just popped out to Liberty to add a piece to their china collection) and the 1910 Edwardian/Arts and Crafts drawing room (I am nothing if not predictable). The strangest – for me, anyway – was the last room, a 1998 loft. There are few things weirder than seeing something from the recent past treated as a historical artefact… even if, at the end of the day, that’s exactly what it is.
One of the best bits about the Geffrye – and the reason I saved it for a sunny spring day – is the garden. Or rather, gardens – they mirror the chronological progression of the museum’s rooms, starting with a walled herb garden, then moving on to a Tudor knot garden, a neatly clipped Georgian garden, a Victorian one and finally a comparatively informal Edwardian garden that echoes Arts and Crafts principles. Ideally, I should have waited until later in the year to see them in their full glory, but after months of cold and a spring that was very late in starting, I was more than glad to listen to the bees buzzing among the rosemary flowers, admire the fritillaria flaunting its orange heads and the tulips just beginning to bud, and soak up the sunshine.
I think it’s safe to say that this won’t be my last visit to the Geffrye. Especially as I no longer have the excuse of it not being on my way anywhere…
Tally: 9 down, 14 to go
April 27, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that captured my imagination. (Well, if I’m being accurate, it was actually A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I saw that when I was ten and I thought the most amazing thing about it was… wait for it… the insults. My brother and I spent the next few weeks yelling ‘You bead! You acorn!’ at each other, probably to much maternal chagrin.) Julius Caesar might have been the first one I read at school, but it left me cold. Macbeth, though – from the very first meeting of the witches on the heath, I understood what the fuss was all about. I was completely enthralled. I have been ever since.
And yet, Macbeth is the play of which I’ve probably seen the fewest performances or other adaptations. There was the outdoor performance I saw in Fort Tryon Park on my first trip to New York (where the actors moved to a new location to indicate each scene change and the audience had to follow), of which I still have warm memories, and there was Roman Polanski’s version, which is easily one of the worst things ever committed to film, Shakespeare or otherwise – the awful acting, the tone-deaf treatment of the language, the ear-splittingly horrible score, the gratuitous nudity… after seeing The Pianist I finally forgave him, but only just. And I should probably – make that definitely – make a point of seeing the Patrick Stewart version (I haven’t yet). But up until a couple of weeks ago, that was it.
So when I heard, back in December, about a production of Macbeth in the spring in the newly renovated Trafalgar Studios with James McAvoy in the title role, I was down at the box office like a shot. I then had to wait four months to see it, but was it worth the wait? Yes, yes and yes.
Oddly, given that actors superstitiously refer to Macbeth as ‘the Scottish play’, this production was the first I’d ever seen to insist so strongly on the play’s Scottishness – and not in a hackneyed kilts-and-bagpipes manner. It’s set in 2063, in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, much closer, in its gritty, unremitting grimness, to Trainspotting than Burns or Scott, and most of the cast is Scottish.
If you’re accustomed to hearing your Shakespeare delivered in impeccable RP (which I’ve become used to in the years I’ve lived in London) or in an American accent (which I grew up with, and which I’ve heard said is actually somewhat closer to Elizabethan English), hearing the text of Macbeth spoken with a Scottish burr is a bit of a jolt at first. But then your ears adjust. It gives the text a different music, drawing out hidden and unexpected nuances.
Nowhere more so than with McAvoy. So many of his film roles have required an English accent that it’s easy to forget that it isn’t his own. Listening to him – and watching him – take on Macbeth in his own accent felt like the aural equivalent of bursting out of a straitjacket, stretching his voice into places I’d never heard it go before, taking the text on a wild ride that the powers that be at the RSC probably wouldn’t entirely approve of (but who says their way is the only way?) but which was terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. There’s the similarly powerful and unnerving physicality – the lethal smile that flashes out and disappears like a flick knife, the quicksilver unpredictability of movement, and a curious kind of illusionism… McAvoy is, supposedly, only 5’7”. Yet on that stage he seemed a giant, towering over everyone else.
Would I say that McAvoy is the best Macbeth ever? No more so than there is one best version of any of Shakespeare’s characters – their glory is that they’re endlessly open to interpretation. What he is, in my humble opinion anyway, is the most gripping Macbeth I’ve ever seen.
April 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Range: Eastern and southern Australia
Diet: Fruits, seeds, berries, nuts
Conservation status: Least concern
If you see one: Do not gawk and fumble for your camera. You will immediately out yourself as a gauche foreigner who grew up thinking that the natural habitat of parrots was the local pet shop.
Range: most of Australia
Diet: Fruits, seeds, berries, nuts
Conservation status: Least concern
If you see one: See ‘Crimson rosella’
Eastern Grey Kangaroo
Range: Eastern Australia
Diet: In theory, grasses; in reality, has a marked liking for the exhibits in the National Botanical Gardens (whose website delicately notes that kangaroos ‘are not encouraged’)
Conservation status: Judging from the number of restaurants in Canberra offering it on the menu, least concern… I hope
If you see one: Do not challenge it to a boxing match. You’ll be sorry.
Range: Severely restricted – confined almost entirely to Lonsdale Street, which is a mere two blocks long
Diet: Flat whites, bircher muesli, sourdough toast
Conservation status: Extremely endangered. This species is thought to be an offshoot of either the Sydney Hipster or the Melbourne Hipster that, by a geographical fluke, has become isolated and evolved separately.
If you see one: Be kind. The life of the Canberra Hipster is not an easy one.