I don’t know what it is about some days. It’s like they get stuck under my shoe, and no matter how I try, I can’t shake them loose. With every step I tramp awkwardly and feel, for the most part, a little off balance.
I had such a day today. To say it was frustrating is like saying that Madonna is quite rich. At midday, I decided to try and walk it off. My plan was to take my lunch and go and eat it down by the River Thames.
Having bought my lunch, I walked along a lovely piazza lined by restaurants. I got distracted by a small band setting themselves up in the shade of a leafy plain tree. I sat down in that same shade, and waited to see what would happen next. And the band began to play.
Adam was the lead singer and guitarist; a kind of curly-haired Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen on Prozac; slow and poetic, but not as depressing as he could be. He was joined by a violinist and double bass player, and together they played some really interesting, original music.
Soon after I sat down, a young woman sitting next to me lit herself a rolled “cigarette”. I use the word loosely. She took a drag, stood up and put the rollie down where she’d been sitting and disappeared. I watched her disappear out of view, and wondered if I was part of a social experiment. I thought maybe someone was about to come and have a second drag of it, but no. About five minutes later, the young woman returned with a coffee in her hand. Of course.
Next, I saw another young woman, dressed in a bright yellow, lycra, polka dot body suit. She walked past, not without some sniggering from the construction workers sitting near me. As I looked around for a camera – surely a candid camera moment? – I saw another young woman emerge from the opposite direction on an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket in the front. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted on top, like an old-fashioned washerwoman. She stopped her bike for a short while and stood and watched and listened. She then rode off, with her furry toy penguin strapped in as a pillion passenger.
Adam continued to pour his heart out into the piazza, to very little attention from the lunching majority walking by, or sitting chatting at the local restaurants. After one lively-ish song, a friend of Adam’s shouted out that his last song had sounded “quite happy”. Adam apologised.
Oh, and a chalkboard next to the small wooden stage from which Adam and band played held a stern warning: “No stage diving”.
I sat a bit longer and soaked everything in. I looked at the beautiful late-autumn-sunny London day. The sky was blue, the sun was streaming through the green leaves of the trees, and what I was experiencing could not have been happening anywhere but London. The city that does random, bizarre, funny, unique like no place I’ve known before. I found sunshine in my otherwise grey day, and I remembered the joy of a city such as this.
I walked back to my office. Funny, there was no longer anything under my shoe.
Having lived in London for two years, it was only last week that we experienced our first open-air concert in the rain. BBC Radio 2’s annual music festival in Hyde Park is a wonderful day’s entertainment. Add four seasons into that day, and I bid you welcome to British autumn.
Hyde Park’s summer season of open-air concerts ends with this one. It’s kind of ‘goodbye open air concerts; goodbye summer; hello any season you like, all at once’.
It was a huge line-up that we bought tickets to see. Billed by BBC Radio 2 as ‘a festival in a day’, the programme ran from 3.30pm to 10pm (‘any later and we’ll keep the Queen awake!’), packed in a whopping 12 artists in a row and 40,000 people into the park. The rain came and went, as did the sunshine and wind. The evening ended with a full-moon rising, blurred behind the clouds.
The likes of ’70s African American disco and R&B band, Chic, played numbers from our disco days:
Alabama-born duo, The Pierces, brought new American sounds into the mix, along with dazzlingly popular UK band Take That’s Gary Barlow. Add in some Will Young, James Blunt, Imelda May, Lenny Kravitz, Jonathan Jeremiah, Caro Emerald, Beverley Knight, Bellowhead and Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and a rare live performance from Sandy Shaw, and you have a spectacular afternoon of music and entertainment.
Imelda May’s contemporary rockabilly beat seriously rocked, and I was entranced with her playing of the bodhrán (Irish frame drum), not to mention her unique style and talent.
British talent is always popular in London. Will Young was ill and without much of a voice, disappointingly, but he did his best; he even tried miming to one of his songs. That wasn’t such a great idea. James Blunt rocked the park, much to my surprise, and I didn’t see his jumping-on-to-the-piano dramatics coming at all. Not at all.
Beverley Knight brought rocking soul to the stage, while Bellowhead – with their 11-piece band of piano accordion, banjo, mandolin, cello, fiddles, trombone, saxophone and tuba – brought a kind of medieval story-telling into the mix. I really loved them.
Caro Emerald, from Holland, was another new and lovely voice to hear, while Lenny Kravitz – in his trademark shades – was just incurably cool.
Ruby Turner filled the park with her big voice and rousing Infatuation and Moving out of the Cold, with sensational backing from Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. Backing singer, Louise Marshall, also grabbed the mic and the audience’s attention; she’s another one to watch.
Gary Barlow stood in for headline act, Lionel Ritchie, who was either ill or busy with a new album, or both. Gary is currently heading the judging panel on the new season of X Factor and, if the contestants represent a chunk of the UK population, a lot of women on this island are in love with Gary Barlow. He couldn’t have been better received.
I have to say, though, that my favourite favourite of the whole day might not be what you’d expect. Contemporary music, new music, rockabilly, heart throbness, coolness, retro beat, story-telling and miming aside; this grand lady floated on to the stage in sparkly short pants, fringed top and shining black locks. With long beautiful legs that flowed all the way to the ground and into two bare feet, her two songs took me back to a childhood in dusty Zambia, where – despite being light years behind the rest of the world – we still knew iconic pop music when we heard it. Even if we were only six.
Here’s the original version of one of Sandy Shaw’s two songs:
Rain, sunshine, wind and many drunken revellers notwithstanding, our red box got richer by two more tickets. And, in the words of Sandy Shaw’s second number last Sunday, there’s Always something there to remind me.
Our exploration of this crowded city continued yesterday and took us to an area in the west of the city, known as Little Venice. In glorious late summer sunshine, we walked along the edge of this junction of two canals and marvelled again at a hidden treasure presented to us by the Big Smoke.
We travelled along the Bakerloo line as far as Warwick Avenue – yes, the very title of a song by Welsh singer, Duffy – and followed the finger boards to Little Venice in south Maida Vale. According to Wikipedia, the area is believed to have been so named by the English poet, Robert Browning, who lived in the area from 1862 to 1887. Browning’s Pool (pictured above), the junction of Regent’s Canal and the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal, bears further testimony to the influence of the poet in this area.
We walked along the perimeter of the junction’s triangle, originally known as Paddington Broadwater when the junction was created in the 1810s, and enjoyed a lovely picnic lunch in Rembrandt Gardens. Artists’ studios on the east side of Browning’s Pool were demolished and replaced by this small park in 1975, so named to commemorate the 700thanniversary of the founding of Amsterdam, the ‘Venice of the North’.
Apart from having been home to Browning, Little Venice has been home to short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, playwright Christopher Fry, novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and Icelandic singer Bjork. It is also home to the Canal Cafe Theatre, the Puppet Theatre Barge and the Waterside Cafe.
After our picnic lunch, we took the waterbus – a long boat – from Little Venice, eastwards around Regent’s Park, and on to our final destination of Camden Town. A delightful crew of a Scotsman and an Englishman instructed us in the health and safety guidelines for climbing safely into the boat, and then assured us that any marriages officiated by the captain on the 50 minute journey would only last for the duration of the journey. Just as well; the narrow seats were well uncomfortable.
Our boat ride along the canal took us through the Maida Vale tunnel, a 250 metre long tunnel built in 1812. Architecture that ranged from the majestic to the common lined the canal as we wove our way past the London Zoo through to the heaving market town of Camden.
Another outstanding day in this beautiful city of surprises.
As the actors withdrew, they left the wooden stage strewn with roses. They bowed and bade farewell not only to an adoring audience but also to a run of almost four months of All’s Well that Ends Well. Night fell on Shakespeare’s open-air theatre, and I was spellbound.
Sunday couldn’t come quickly enough. We’d booked to go and see the last performance of this Shakespeare comedy at The Globe Theatreon the South Bank in London. We met up with our friends at a great Turkish restaurant next to the Thames River, and enjoyed a relaxing late afternoon meal before wandering down the South Bank – under a beautiful summer sky – ahead of our planned feast of Shakespeare.
According to their website, The Globe Theatre is a faithful reconstruction of the open-air playhouse, first built in 1599, where Shakespeare worked and for which he wrote many of his great plays. It is an outstanding and totally special venue. The courtyard of the theatre complex is paved with stones that bear the names of benefactors to the beloved project of American actor, Sam Wanamaker, whose dream resulted in this amazing theatre project overlooking St Paul’s. He caught the vision to recreate Shakespeare’s theatre, on his first visit to the UK in 1949; he died in 1993 and the theatre was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1997. His life’s work breathed life into this modern-day shrine to Shakespeare.
I love that The Globe Theatre describes itself as being “designed with the 21stcentury in mind. An additional exit, illuminated signage [health and safety is king in the UK], fire retardant materials [Shakespeare’s own theatre burnt down in two hours during a 1613 production of Henry VIII, when some stage cladding caught alight], and some modern backstage machinery are all concessions to our times. The reconstruction is as faithful to the original as modern scholarship and traditional craftsmanship can make it, but for the time being this Globe is – and is likely to remain – neither more nor less than the ‘best guess’ at Shakespeare’s theatre.”
The season runs annually from April to October, and features productions of Shakespeare’s work, and the work of his contemporaries and modern writers. We were four of the 350,000 audience members annually who experience the ‘wooden O’. We sat in the gallery, while many stand “as a groundling” in the yard, just as they would have done 400 years ago.
The tickets for the standing area – where peasants would have stood centuries ago – cost a fiver and, honestly, if I’d been 20 years younger, I would have done that. However, we’re not 20 years younger, and nor are our friends, so we all sat in the relative comfort of the gallery on wooden seats with the luxurious addition of hired cushions. I felt sorry for that poor dear old lady who stood in the bard’s mosh pit and clutched on the corner of the wooden stage for, what seemed, dear life. She also appeared to droop lower and lower as the play went on.
Before the play began, the actors came on to the stage, singing, and we were welcomed to the theatre. The play was set in France, so one actor engaged us in a lesson in basic French: “les telephones portables?” he ventured and, with wildly flailing arms, shouted, “Non! Les cameras videos et les cameras flashy-flashy ou non flashy-flashy? ABSOlument pas! Parapluies? [here he mimed an umbrella opening up] PAS du tout!” He closed his lesson with, “D’accord?” before apologising to anyone in the audience who might actually be French-speaking. And then the play began.
It was a delightful play and the actors were fabulous. They took us on a typically fast-paced romp through mistaken identity, cowardice, lust, war, greed, miracle cures, covetousness and that rarest of elements: true love. Each character carved his place in the creation of the tale, and they took us along for the hilarious ride.
As dusk fell over the open-air theatre, and pigeons landed on the stage roof, the play grew ever more complicated (ingewikkeld, as you would say in Afrikaans). Inevitably, all the knots were loosened, true identities revealed and each character predictably came face to face with himself. And, as the play drew to a close, all was indeed well that ended well.
An actor stepped forward and reminded us that as the play ended, the King was again a beggar and all the actors had resumed their own identities. He thanked us for our patronage, and with that the actors began their closing routine. They stepped forward in time to the live music, they whirled and they twirled in dancing delight, they screamed and they laughed and they stamped and they clapped. The audience watched in adoring, reflected enchantment and soon, as the actors disappeared behind the scenery, it was just the roses that remained on the wooden stage.
I’d heard that The Globe was amazing. I had no idea just how special it would be. I’m hooked and I can’t wait to experience another evening enjoying the bard’s art there. Our red box has a few more tickets in it and London – once again – has revealed another jewel in its formidable crown. What a privilege.
How often do you laugh? I mean, seriously laugh? It’s one of my favourite things in the whole world – and, as the song goes – “I love to laugh, long and loud and clear; the more I laugh, the more I fill with glee, and the more the glee, the more I’m a merrier me”!
My husband and I have never stopped being able to make each other laugh. The other day, we laughed till the tears rolled down our cheeks. And our stomachs ached. And our faces hurt. I have no idea what we were laughing at but boy, does that do my heart good! So I thought I’d share a few things with you that make me laugh. Or just smile.
A few days ago, I tried out a new gym class: chi ball. I’d heard – from the instructor – just how amazing it was, and he told me, as he flapped his hand forward, that I’d “simply love it! It’s divine.”
So I booked to do a chi ball class before my usual Pilates class. I arrived to a studio “filled” with three other people. We all got out our mats, sat on them and waited for the instructor, who is notoriously late for everything. The door flew open and in rushed the instructor, three limbs flapping at a rate of knots; the fourth one dragging behind in melodramatic tardiness.
He was already speaking – in broad Glaswegian – before he came in the door. To us, I mean. “Yes, you do see me limping I banged my knee on the fridge because they’re doing some work in our flat and everything in the kitchen is all over the flat and the fridge is in the passage so I walked into it because it’s just in the way and my knee’s so sore I can hardly move it and on the tube I was trying to avoid anyone bumping me and so I stood like this and I couldn’t bring the chi balls because they’re too heavy and they would weigh me down and put pressure on my knee because it’s so sore how are you?”
After the second word, two of the three other women in the room stopped listening and started giggling. They looked at each other, and giggled behind their hands, and slapped each other and giggled. I thought the performance was amusing, but not so giggle-worthy. When the words stopped, one of the women said to the instructor, “Ah, is this not yoga?” He told them yoga was in the studio next door, so they up and went next door, leaving the two of us to enjoy a chi ball class with no chi balls and an injured instructor. A chi ball class not.
Our instructor – who is a lovely man – then suggested we do a mixture of tai chi, chi gong, yoga and pilates, so the two of us set up shop next to each other and launched into a musical mystery tour of ancient truths and butterfly arms. A few minutes into the routine, we all looked hopefully across the room as two more people entered. Turned out they were just there to take the extra mats.
We touched the sun, we posed like warriors and we reached around the world. All the time with butterfly arms. It was a hilarious class when I reflect back on it – it was flipping hard work trying to change the world with butterfly arms. I’ll give it a bash again next week. Let’s hope the fridge has moved by then.
I’ve told you quite a lot about the fun I have commuting to central London by bus. I have discovered that the earlier I leave, the more likely I am to share the bus with a truckload, sorry a busload, of schoolchildren. They are an interesting breed. The boys and girls sit separately, totally separately, and they get off at separate stops even though they go to the same school. I guess early adolescence is the time to avoid the opposite sex, even though all they want to do, really, is spend time together.
One day last week, as the boys headed off down the stairs at their designated stop, one of them looked around at the top of the stairs and, surveying the mass of commuter heads in his view, shouted, “Bye bye all you funny bus people!” I guess he must have lost a bet.
We had a successful outing – thank the Lord! – to our favourite comedy club recently. Stephen Merchant, who co-wrote The Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais and who appeared in both series, headlined at our local comedy club. Stephen is off on a tour of the UK later this year, followed by one or two tester dates in the USA. He wanted to try out his new material, and what better place to do that than a small, intimate comedy club in south London?
We found seats just behind the band, who play between the acts. They were a great buffer until the acts came on stage, and then they all disappeared, leaving us, well, exposed. Thank goodness no-one picked on us!
Stephen Merchant is very very funny. His tour is called “Hello Ladies” as, he explained, he is looking for a “Mrs”. He’s on the search for someone who wants a little of “this”, he says, as he points up and down his body. He looked at a woman in the front row and said, “I know what you’re thinking. Six foot seven. That’s a lot of Stephen.”
His humour is delightfully self-deprecating, and he wove his stories around the sorry tale of his singleness and his inept attempts at romance. Despite the fact that he has two Baftas. He also talked – with many many hilarious diversions – of how he once came to being kicked out of a wedding reception. He told us how great it was to be on tour as a solo stand-up comedian: “Yes, best that way. Don’t have to pay any royalties to [air speech marks] you-know-who!”
Stephen Merchant is a delightful and very funny man. If you get the chance to see him perform, jump at it; you won’t be sorry you did. He is one half of The Office genius and he’s certainly a very talented half. I can imagine the energy that flowed between him and “you-know-who”, both when they worked at BBC Radio together and then when they worked on all their killer series together.
My blog will be silent for the next few weeks as we fly home to be with our family for a couple of major big birthday celebrations. To say that I’m sick with excitement would be a major understatement. I look forward to sharing the adventures with you on our return but, for now, I’m smiling and waving you all au revoir. With butterfly arms. Always with butterfly arms.
It must be about 20 years ago that I first saw this floppy-fringed Canadian singer. I didn’t really like her look and paid little attention. Until I heard her sing. Miss Chatelaine blew my mind, not to mention my assumptions. Seeing her perform that song live last night felt like a musical dream for me.
Just a smile, just a smile, hold me captive for a while I can’t explain why I’ve become Miss Chatelaine Every time your eyes meet mine, Clouds of qualm burst into sunshine
kd lang live at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday’s date stared out at me from our calendar for a few months, our tickets stared out at me from their shelf in our cabinet, and I grew more and more excited as the day neared. Yesterday was a beautiful warm and sunshiney day in London; temperatures hovered around 26 degrees for most of the day. After work I walked along the edge of the Thames from my London Bridge office towards the South Bank, where I’d arranged to meet my husband at the Nelson Mandela bust. It seemed fitting.
Much of London was out enjoying the sun and the summer construction of a “beach” along the South Bank. Street dancers performed, families strolled along licking ice lollies, pubs overflowed with chirpy office workers, benches and patches of grass were filled with cheery people enjoying the welcome London sunshine. In lengthening shadows and royal blue sunshine, the balmy evening was simply sublime.
Because we booked early for last night’s show, we managed to get great seats in the fifth row from the stage. Little Miss Higginsand Floyd Taylor opened the show with infectiously bouncy old time country music, inspired by her rural home in the Great Northern Plains of Western Canada. After a short interval, kd lang and the Siss Boom Bang Band took the stage and wove musical magic around us for the next hour and a half.
Opening with I Confess from her recently-released and beautifully crafted Sing it Loudalbum, she moved on to The Water’s Edge before sending the audience into raptures with her crazy-fabulous arrangement of Miss Chatelaine. Mixing old and new songs, she sang and she danced and with every word, she reached out from her soul to an adoring audience.
When she shouted, “London!” we screamed and we whooped and we whistled, before her rousing delivery of Sing it Loud, her album’s title song and anthem to being who you are. She then began a set of spiritual songs starting, as she said, “at the top and working my way down”. She tore through Talking Head’s Heaven before moving on to probably the most sincere and emotional offering of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah I have ever heard. She brought me to tears and all of us spontaneously to our feet. After a poignant A Sleep with No Dreaming, she ended the set by giving her guitar pick to a little girl in the front row. Much applause followed and then kd said, “What? She wants my guitar too? Right. Everyone wants Josephine; she’s that kinda gal.”
She then introduced us to the immensely talented band from lead guitarist, to bass player, drummer, keyboard/piano wizard and then ended with the man who “changed my life”. She met Joe Pisapia at the Ryman Auditorium at the Grand Ole Opry and what we experienced last night is what resulted from “that union”. I’d heard her talk before about the name of the band – Siss Boom Bang is what happens when they play together. They sizzle and they just work. Beautifully.
A clearly well-loved woman, kd batted audience chirps away with grace and gentle wit. One audience member shouted out a whole bunch of song titles. This seemed to confuse ms lang, who said, “So many titles, so few mine.”
What followed was The Perfect Word, Habit of Mind, Reminiscing (what an adorable love song), Sorrow Nevermore (where kd ditched Josephine to play the banjo) and ended with a powerful rendition of Constant Craving. The audience went ballistic and she and the band left the stage. We wouldn’t let her go, so she returned sans shoes and jacket for the beautiful Inglewood, before her final and delightfully frenetic Sugar Buzz.
We still didn’t want her to go. And nor did she. She and the band returned for a third and final encore. She gathered her band closely around her on the stage to perform a song “for all the businessmen here tonight”. A fun and bouncy Pay Dirt was followed by the achingly delicate Hungry Bird.
kd lang and the Siss Boom Bang Band then left the stage. They left us screaming for more but knowing we’d just experienced an evening of musical genius. I loved it. k daddy – you have the voice of an angel and I’m a fan. A big fan.
I commute to work by bus every day. I take a ten-minute walk to my stop, hop on my favoured ride, and sit among the good and the great, the quiet and the noisy. Usually I catch up on texting my friends or family, or I read my book. Sometimes I sit and listen. Other times I just sit.
Last week, the American President paid an official state visit to these shores. Barack and Michelle Obama were welcomed by both Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister, David Cameron. In the midst of the pomp and ceremony and formality, David and Barack went to visit a south London school to play table tennis. And to meet the schoolchildren. Apparently the area was a no-go zone for most of the day, as security measures ensured the safety of the two highly competitive table tennis players.
The day after this school visit, which was splashed across all national and international media, I travelled on the bus with a bunch of schoolchildren who were clearly part-time political commentators.
“You know they went to that school, yeah? They chose that school, right, because them kids, yeah, they’s well bad, right? So they went to that school to make them good, innit?”
I hope they were successful.
So these are the things I observe as I ride in buses with people:
1. Some people bash everyone’s heads with their bags as they walk up or down the aisle of the bus. It looks like they have either a small washing machine, or an old-fashioned television set in the bags they carry on their shoulders and, systematically, they will bash the head of each person sitting on an aisle seat on their route. I am not sure how many points you get for a whole row of commuters, but there must be some high-fiving happening somewhere.
2. Some people like to take up two seats on the their own. They will sit on one seat and their bag on the other. (See above.)
3. Some people who travel with their friends or partners or spouses, love to speak loudly and sometimes to argue. I sat on the bus once listening to a young couple argue for forty minutes about the same subject. When eventually I got to my stop, I was tempted to say, “For goodness sake, do the freaking exam tomorrow. He has a point – you’ve got nothing to lose.”
4. Some commuters are very British. And others aren’t. One morning, as I walked up the stairs to the upper deck of the bus, I heard a young man seated at the back of the bus having a conversation on his cell phone. Clearly, he didn’t need a phone; I think his friend would have heard him from Edinburgh. He finished his conversation, and then began to strike up a conversation with the guy who had sat down beside him. I thought it was an entirely one-way conversation because all I heard was the young guy, at the same number of decibels as his phone conversation, tell his neighbour about what had happened on the bus the night before. After a polite pause, his new friend said to him, “Would you mind calming down, please?”
5. Some people don’t mind having inappropriate conversations that everyone on the bus can hear. One evening, I was joined by a chubby and jovial young man who came to sit next to me. He was already having a conversation on his cell phone, which he continued at full voice for the entire journey. As hard as I tried to concentrate on reading my book, I couldn’t focus for the incessant yabbering from my neighbour. My book was much more interesting than the fact that he argued with his partner for three hours on Monday night because, as he was ironing, he forgot to tell her when Glee came on television.
6. Some people are fruit murderers. The other day, I sat near a guy who wasn’t so much eating an apple, as beating it to death between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Loudly.
Despite how it may sound, I do love travelling to work by bus. I have a scenic walk along the docks, the river and then a treed walkway to my bus stop. And it is fun getting to know some familiar faces who catch the bus at the same time as I do. Once I’m on the bus, I make sure I don’t forget to look up at the regular sights that we pass, like the occasional uninterrupted view of the River Thames, and the view of Tower Bridge. Mostly I sit there and feel thankful for my job and for this opportunity to live in London.
On the odd occasion – and thankfully this doesn’t happen too often – the journey can be quite different. Once, I planned an entire tantrum in my mind. I had no intention of acting on it, but the process of imagining turned out to be just what I needed. Let me explain …
One day a few weeks ago, I’d had a really full and busy day at work, and I got on the bus feeling quite tired and wearing the hair-shirt of grumpiness. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to send a text message to my husband; traffic was bad; our bus sat in one of the railway tunnels for ages; a young couple was arguing non-stop and a Spanish couple were shouting at each other (I don’t think they were arguing, just trying to get themselves heard above the arguers). In my mind, I imagined the following: flinging my head dramatically into my lap, grabbing my hair with both hands and doing a screen-worthy “aaaargghhhhh!” Once that had got everyone’s attention, I imagined myself storming down the aisle – telling the young couple to “sort this out, one way or the other, for the love of London!”. (I actually thought that.) As I stormed down the aisle, I would also be bashing everyone’s heads with my bag – not on purpose, but just because I had a big bag over my shoulder – and swearing like a pirate at the bus driver for the traffic, before demanding he let me off the bus.
It felt quite satisfying to imagine that drama in my mind, until I remembered that that very morning, I had prayed that God would use me to extend His kingdom in whatever I did that day. Major fail. That made me smile and it loosened the grumpy shirt that I’d been wearing. I breathed deeply, I tried to remember the true meaning of tolerance and chuckled as I stepped off the bus, quietly, at the next stop. I didn’t even touch my hair.
The more I get to know London, the less I realise I know of this city heaving and overcrowded with history. And the more I get to know the city, the more I love living here for now.
My New York blogging buddy, jacquelin, told me about Postman’s Park, just behind St Paul’s. I met up with my husband one sunshine-filled lunch time last week, and we walked across the London Millennium Footbridge over the Thames, towards St Paul’s Cathedral – a sight that still takes my breath away – and we walked around the massive and awe-inspiring church to this little spot:
This little spot is interestingly one of the biggest parks in the City of London. It was built in 1880 on the site of a churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldergate. Named as it is because it stands on the former site of the General Post Office where postmen often sat to eat their lunch, Postmans Park is also home to a sheltered wall commemorating, as something of a protest against the upper class, ordinary people who lost their lives heroically trying to save others. G F Watts, the painter (1817 – 1904), came up with the idea and he commissioned Doulton to create the hand-lettered tiles to honour the otherwise unheralded and unnamed heroes.
In a similar vein, one of my colleagues showed me this little site just down the road from our office. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial site, going back to medieval times, for “single women” and paupers. (“Single women” was a euphemism for prostitutes, known in the area as “Winchester Geese” because they were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Southwark area known as the Liberty of the Clink.)
According to Wikipedia, the Liberty of the Clink lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and as a result became known for its brothels and theatres, bull and bear-baiting. The age of the graveyard is not known: John Stow (1525 – 1605) wrote about it in A Survey of London in 1598, and by 1769 it had become a paupers’ cemetery for the poor of St Saviour’s parish. It is believed that about 15,000 people are buried there.
When the London Underground planned the construction of its Jubilee Line through the area, between 1991 and 1998, archaeologists found this overcrowded graveyard with bodies piled on top of one another. Test showed the deaths to have been caused by anything from smallpox to TB, Paget’s disease, osteoarthritis and Vitamin D deficiency.
The find captured the attention of local community members who created an informal group – Friends of Cross Bones – to campaign for a permanent memorial garden on the site, which has also become the site of annual Halloween festivals – held every year since 1998 – marked by processions, songs and candles.
Today is officially Squirrels-Gone-Mad Day. I know you might have been expecting a Royal Wedding post from this heaving city because nothing much else seems to be happening here at the moment. People are camping outside Westminster as we speak to get a glimpse of the family-that-is-not-boring and the couple-who-are-also-not-boring as they get set to tie the royal knot on Friday. But squirrels captured my attention today; they just did.
As I walked to my bus this morning, I decided that the squirrels in our ‘hood had gone nuts. Firstly, I saw a squirrel scurrying towards the water as I crossed the dock. There was no tree in sight and, I know it’s been a bit warmer here, but I didn’t realise squirrels liked the water. Although I saw no towel or swimming cap (health and safety considerations, of course), I think my squirrel friend was going for a squim.
Then, when I walked past a row of weeping willow trees, a couple of squirrels rushed past me and scurried up a tree. I heard a crinkling sound and then saw that one of the squirrels was carrying a large, crumpled-up piece of paper in its mouth. I watched it as it ran to the top of the tree, towards a nest. (Do squirrels have nests?) I thought maybe the squirrels just wanted to do anything to take their minds off this royal madness all around them; it was their equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la-la-la”! I know the feeling.
My version of doing that is to share a few more of the things that I love about life in London and, in so doing, to keep the attention away from the you-know-whats.
1. Sir John Soane’s Museum
Friends of ours told us about this little hidden gem in the heart of London. Sir John Soane was the Royal Architect (sorry for using the “r” word) in 1806 and, according to his website, began “to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’”.
We visited this Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field near Holborn in central London a few weekends ago. We stood and waited our turn to enter the hushed and hallowed halls of this building that was home and house to both a family and an exorbitantly large collection of stuff. The number of visitors to the house at any one time is limited to about 20, as space to move is at a premium. I had to put my handbag into a plastic bag and hold it in my hand, to avoid the risk of knocking over artefacts that are stood and stored everywhere; all cameras and laptops were surrendered at the front door and no photography permitted. No washing machines either.
When we got the nod, we stepped into a surreal world of compulsive collections of artwork, furniture, paintings, statues, stained glass, casts, architects’ models and history. Our eyes stood out on stalks, our senses were overloaded and the abundance of assembled heritage from every corner and age of the world just about blew my mind. The house itself is a fascination of levels and sunroofs and alcoves and cellars and nooks and crannies. Every available surface and space is filled with another piece of art.
The “monk’s cellar” at the bottom of the house is home to a collection of Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphic engravings as well as a wooden mummy case. A cellar-level courtyard hosts the final resting place of “Poor Fanny” whose inscription on a massive headstone tells of a greatly revered personality, laid to rest in pride of place. I asked one of the staff members who “poor Fanny” was and was surprised to learn that “she was, madam, Mrs Soane’s dog”.
We were ushered into a high-ceilinged room whose walls were lined, from floor to ceiling, with paintings. The door was closed behind us and a white-gloved curator proceeded to talk us through the profusion of artworks that covered the walls. He talked with perfect comedic timing through a series of William Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress, and then described the provenance of each other gem hanging from the walls, or should I say, cupboard doors, as they opened to reveal a further collection of artworks lining the inside of the doors and the real wall behind the doors. The opposite “wall” was also so composed, with one difference: the doors opened to reveal another set of doors which then opened on to an open space above the monk’s cellar, where Soane’s model of the Bank of England stood proudly for all to see. We all gasped and applauded.
The rest of the house brought with it equal numbers of surprises and sensory treats; it certainly requires a second and third visit and you can be sure that we’ll be back to discover more.
2. Charity in London
I work for a small charity that does remarkably big work in London. I never cease to be amazed at the level of dedication to our work that I see all around me every day, and the pace of change that results from passionate and focused campaigning.
Ten days ago, we stood on Tower Bridge and cheered on the 100 or so runners who joined the 36,500 others to run the London Marathon 2011 in our charity’s colours towards a goal of raising some quarter of a million pounds for us. It’s far and away our biggest fundraising event of the year, which makes sense: the London Marathon is, I am told, the “biggest fundraising event on the PLANET”.
Each person running for us had a reason to run for us: to raise funds for world-class research that might change the course of his four-year-old son’s life; to run in memory of her nephew who died 15 years ago, aged 16; three university students who ran because their mate is in a wheelchair and he’s an awesome guy; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends – all honouring someone close to them and supporting them in this amazingly tangible way. There are no more words.
3. Endless eavesdropping opportunities
Last week, a woman sat behind me in the bus on the way to work. She arrived at her seat mid-conversation on her cell phone. She had a slight accent, and from what I could overhear, she was whingeing about someone; female I think.
The conversation continued in a monotone and then I heard her say, “But you know what? I’m really worried about the herpes.” I then began to wonder what kind of a weekend she’d had, exactly, and began to understand why she was so irate with this other person.
“Everything else is okay, the shoes and everything, it’s just the herpes. And I’m really worried. I don’t know what to do about it.”
I was about to move seats, when I realised I was heading off down the wrong track.
“You see, the thing about the herpes is that … well, it’s more like a veil than a herpes. You see?”
She was talking about a “hairpiece”.
4. Riding along the Thames
I am quite proud of myself because I can still ride a bicycle. Well, ride might be too generous a word. I can stay upright on a bicycle and not fall off. Just.
Easter Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze. My husband and I set off on our newly-sorted bikes to enjoy a little ride along the edge of the Thames. I haven’t been on a bike for about 30 years but, as they say, it’s just like riding a bike. I managed to stay pretty much balanced and didn’t wobble myself to a complete standstill.
Thank goodness we didn’t ride in traffic, just along the Thames footpath, and I mostly managed to avoid hitting any pedestrians. For a short distance we rode on a road with traffic and I discovered a have a unique instinct: instead of fight or flight, I have my own response: act like a complete idiot. Fearing being knocked over by a car, I do the sensible thing when I hear it approaching: I ride towards it.
I don’t think that approach will lengthen my life, but I’ll stay off the busy roads just in case. It is also a bit of a challenge riding a boy’s bike that is slightly too big for me, but I’ll get over it. In fact, I did! And the uncomfortable saddle. And the handlebars that seem designed for gorilla-length arms. But you know what? The freedom of riding along in a gentle breeze, alongside my best friend and along the edge of a raging river that’s been churning and flowing since time immemorial, made me feel alive and unbeatable.
Until I hit a cobbled path and riding over it was like being aboard a jackhammer at full throttle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
This post has felt a bit like Sir John Soane’s museum – nothing really makes too much sense; it’s filled with bits of this and bits of that and peppered with randomness and collections of thoughts and observations, with nothing really to hold them all together except that they all come from me. I don’t think there’ll be people queuing for a viewing of my thoughts but you never know; this is London, man, and people here are crazy.