Looking out of the Window

2013-04-01 16.31.13I’ve spent a few hours looking at the near 200 photos I took on my trip last weekend over the last couple of days.  They say that going away can sharpen your perception of your habitual surroundings, and it may be true in my case.  Or it might be that I happened to be on a high floor in a building I’ve never been inside before, and after a grey morning, the sun started to shine, and the city showed itself off, from a new angle.

Congratulations, but no prize, if you can recognise where I was when I took the photos.

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A Poet in Gordon Square

I am constantly confronted by my own ignorance.  Where in the past I might have thought that’s interesting, and immediately forgotten whatever it was that had momentarily attracted my attention, or sparked a fleeting curiosity, now, because of the blog, I pause, take a photo, have a little go on google, and tell you about it.

Neither of us may retain the information for very long, but some little snippet may stick; knowing myself it will be the most inconsequential piece of information, but it’s too late to worry about that now.

This week was my second evening class at Birkbeck, and, as is my wont, I was a few minutes early, so wandered around Gordon Square again.  And came across this statue.  As it was only unveiled last July, I’m not surprised I’d never noticed it before, but I’ll admit I’d never previously heard of the poet Tagore.  But now I have, and the Nobel website furnished me with lots more information.

Wandering Gordon Square may prove to be a fertile source of inspiration for more posts…….you’ve been warned!

Home Tourist – Regents Park

A quick walk in the park on Sunday evening rewarded me with a couple of shots to make a quick post for today.

I’ve never previously noticed that there are so many birds in Regents Park  – I’d always thought if you wanted birds, St James’s Park was the place to go.  But there are plenty of them further north too.  I was fascinated by the way these herons were sitting so evenly spaced along the edge of the water, as if they weren’t talking to each other or had been placed there.

And then there are the birds with the comedy feet….

And because it has rained every day since a state of drought was announced, there were still puddles for the well booted; and this one in particular proved a special draw.

I was paying attention…really

Odd, slightly idiosyncratic things about my visit to Buckingham Palace, have stuck in my mind.  Both in the Queen’s Gallery and in the Palace itself, much was made of the fact that much of the design work and the acquisition of the decorations and geegaws on display was done to satisfy the tastes of George IV.

I’d always vaguely known that the Queen had a large collection of paintings and other artworks, and had rather assumed that there was nothing particularly remarkable in one very wealthy family accruing such a collection over a number of generations.

I was in possession of two random facts (which I’m prepared to acknowledge might not even be true).  Firstly, that she is generous in allowing the works from the collection to be lent to exhibitions both in the UK and outside, and secondly, courtesy of the Alan Bennett play, ‘A Question of Attribution’, that Anthony Blunt, one of the so-called Cambridge spies, was at one time the Surveyor of the Queen’s Paintings.  This second fact may have occurred to me only because of my recent visit to see ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ at the cinema.

The Queen’s Gallery was a surprise to me; and I realise I should have visited before.  It may be a frivolous reaction, but the strongest impression on me was of the fabulous green walls in the first room, and the even more striking red of the second.  How do they decide what to put on display there?  Are they the pictures everyone’s got tired of looking at over the dining table?  It may simply be the emphasis of the exhibitions for this season, but I came away with the distinct idea that all the best stuff had been acquired by George IV when he was both Regent and then subsequently King.

Two questions now occur to me.  How do they draw the distinction between what belongs to the Queen personally, and what belongs to the State.  However one is distinguished from the other, it must be a very fine line.  And secondly, haven’t any of the monarchs since George IV made much of an impression on the aesthetic of Buckingham Palace?  Victoria was mentioned in relation to some of the State carriages on display in the Mews; and I learnt that the Landau, a particularly large open topped conveyance was built especially large to accommodate the size and girth of Edward VII, but apart from that, given the silence on the taped commentary, no-one since the 1820s has made much of a mark on the public rooms in Buckingham Palace.

Do they feel stuck in a time warp of lush red carpets and gilded statues?  Or do they have no interest in art, or their surroundings?  Or do they have so many other houses to play with that the Palace is like ‘the office’ to them and they make their personal mark somewhere else? At Windsor, Sandringham or Balmoral?  When she’s always pulling the cord to open little curtains in front of plaques on new buildings, does the Queen sometimes wish she could have a new building to furnish, or is she content with the existing family piles?

And finally, random fact No 427.  Did you know that the Mall is paved in red tarmac to give the impression of a red carpet?

Home Tourist – A Royal Day Out

Call it naive, but when I decided to finally get around to taking the tour of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, I hadn’t realised that this is the bumper year for the Palace.

‘Why?’ I hear you all shout.  ‘Surely you knew everyone wants to see ‘the dress’.’

I know that now, of course.

By the time I had agreed the date and time we could both go with E, there were no timed tickets for the State Rooms alone, so we had to book ‘The Royal Day Out’ which bundles the State Rooms with The Mews and the Queen’s Gallery.

It was the last day of the season for the tours; the Palace is closed again now and presumably all the staff, and the busy bees behind the scenes, are dismantling all evidence of the visits of the great unwashed ready for the return of the Queen from her summer break in Balmoral.

When I went to collect my pre ordered ticket, I stood for a moment, astonished by the length of the queue to buy the day tickets.  I can rarely be persuaded to join a queue, and that line would never have tempted me, winding round and round it looked like one of those airport crowds on crisis days, when Heathrow erects marquees outside to pretend they are doing something to manage the crush.

Maybe it’s the latent accountant in me; much as I might try to deny its existence, I was still doing the sums in my head.  The basic ticket is around £18, the ‘Royal Day Out’ £31, so on average £20 per head (ignoring any weighted averaging), plus those who wanted a programme, a tea caddy or tin of biscuits sporting a coronet or union flag, and the cup of tea in the garden at the climax of the visit.  There must have been thousands of people going through at the same time as me; a slow moving procession, nearly silent, each person listening to their own recorded guide (‘please keep moving while you listen to this’; ‘please walk well into the room before turning to look at the ceiling/cornice/picture/table’).  Whatever the answer, it’s a great deal of money.

To be fair, there are lots of staff in waistcoats checking that you behave, take no photos, don’t touch anything and don’t hide in the bushes on the way out through the garden, all of whom were well spoken and polite, and I did find it all interesting, but even taking all that into account, net net they must make an astonishing amount of profit.  So I hope it’s true that the entire surplus is reinvested in the maintenance of the buildings, to spare the taxpayer.

The public rooms are ostentatious and lavish, originally designed to satisfy the flamboyant requirements of George IV, and can easily rival anything to be seen in the historic palaces anywhere in Europe.  The unique thing here is that it is all still a ‘working palace’ (such a delicious oxymoron, repeated to the visitor on the pilgrimage through the rooms.)

And not to forget ‘the dress’; the fetishisation of the item is complete, displayed on a headless dummy, inside the sort of netting that usually fits on top of a child’s trampoline, brightly illuminated in an otherwise dimly lit red upholstered room.  Bored with the seemingly endless narration about the frock on the recorded tour, I’d fast forwarded to the end and was standing to the side waiting for E.  I thought I’d take the moment to check for email on my phone, and was pounced on by an attendant and told not to take photos.  I’m not sure she believed me about the emails.

Home Tourist – Fenton House, Hampstead

Early on a Bank Holiday Monday morning Hampstead is the land of all terrain prams, dog walkers and toddlers in back packs,

It can be surprising how we allow trivial things to cause us anxiety.  For some it’s packing before a trip, for others it’s flying or going somewhere for the first time, or walking into a room full of strangers.

I’m not generally prone to anxiety, but I was in a coffee shop in Hampstead over an hour early to meet my friends because of my worries about finding somewhere to park.  I’d already been extensively through public transport options, but according to the transport for London website the bus would take me an hour and twenty minutes and the tube 55 minutes; driving took me 15.

Hampstead is a higgledy-piggledy cramped part of London, filled with narrow roads and wealthy residents with multiple cars to each residence, where parking is always at a premium.  In London generally there are so many arcane restrictions and rules which can vary from one side of the street to the other, with a significant cost associated with transgression.

I once received a ticket having checked the sign on the opposite side of the road – free after 18:30 – failing to notice, until I returned to find a ticket under the windscreen wiper, that where I had parked it was restricted until 19:00.  I had fallen foul of one particularly mean spirited warden who issued me with a ticket at 18:58.  After that £60 lesson I am now particularly wary; especially when it is impossible to find out what rules apply on a Bank Holiday.

By the time I arrived at the coffee shop I was satisfied that my early arrival had secured one of the few safe spots available.

The purpose of our outing was to visit Fenton House, owned by the National Trust, and one of the earliest mansions built in the area.

I’ve been a member of the NT for years, but true to form, I’ve never visited the properties nearest to me; so it was long overdue to remedy that.

The house has been filled with collections of ceramics and old keyboard instruments, but for us the most attractive thing was the house itself, its beautifully proportioned and symmetrical designs, as well as the garden, which surprisingly includes a small orchard and a well stocked vegetable patch.

And there was a great view of the City from an upstairs balcony.

And in common with every NT property we were kept well in line in our exploration of the house’s interior by the elderly lady volunteers.

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that they exist in London as well as in all the shire counties.

Home Tourist – Cabinet War Rooms

Ever since they opened to the public as a museum, I’ve periodically said to myself that I must visit the Cabinet War Rooms.  Finally, after 27 years, I’ve done it.

It’s the perfect thing to do early on a damp Saturday morning.  The Rooms are in cellars beneath a building in Whitehall, hastily reinforced with concrete above it and wooden struts inside, in the very early days of the Second World War.  They were occupied for the 6 years of the war and then closed up, some of them exactly as they were in September 1945, until the late 1970s when the Imperial War Museum went in to prepare them for public access.

Opening the doors after 35 years must have been an extraordinary experience; even though there were plenty of people around when I was visiting, on a couple of occasions I found myself on my own in the corridors, and very eerie and creepy they were.

The Rooms are set out as they are believed to have been on a particular day in 1940; all the clocks show a time just before 5 o’clock; where they have been recreated, it is based on arrangements seen in photos taken during the period.

As always it’s the small personal details that particularly intrigue me: the small rooms with tiny single beds for staying overnight by even quite senior civil servants; the sugar ration found hidden at the back of a desk drawer inside a self addressed envelope; the bunks on the lower levels where the junior staff were unlikely to be able to stand up straight and had to take their chances of finding somewhere to sleep.

I tried to imagine what the air would have been like.  Apparently several hundred people passed through the area in the years it was in use; every desk had an ashtray on it, and there were no flush toilets.  There is one door which had a toilet door type lock on it, and staff believed it led to the only flush facilities for the Prime Minister’s private use; in fact it was the way to the special phone Churchill used to call Roosevelt.

Imagine all the gossiping and rumour there must have been in people working under pressure in such confined circumstances, unable to talk about their work with anyone outside the bunker, and rarely seeing daylight.

There’s a tea room part way round the tour manned by a staff we startled by asking them how long their shifts were, and how they managed to work underground for all that time each day.  Daylight is still at a premium for the underground worker.

What would the people who worked there in the 1940s make of the move in technology from bakelite telephones, candles and rudimentary gas stoves to the Gaggia coffee machine that now serves visitors?  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that there was a shiny Italian coffee machine in the original refit for the opening in 1984.

There’s an audio guide, the sounds of typewriters and personal testimonies and pinpricked maps to look at; plenty of things to provide the historical context and background, but it’s the tiny bits and pieces of humour and individual ingenuity that make it a human story.

On a Street Corner in London…..

I always find it hard to think of a place to meet a friend in the West End unless we have already fixed a venue for the evening’s entertainment.  I have those spots to go to for a quick bite to eat before the theatre, or the coffee shop for a chat in the morning, but if we want to make a joint spur of the moment selection of a place to eat, my mind goes a complete blank.

We could go through the pantomime of ‘it’s that pub near the theatre where that thing is on, you know’, as I can never remember the name of a pub to save my life, and the things that I regard as landmarks are often entirely unnoticed by most other people.

The one thing to absolutely avoid is to arrange to meet outside a Tube station.  Have you noticed how many people loiter outside the exit from Leicester Square station by Wyndhams Theatre, or beside the Eros exit at Piccadilly Circus?  It’s an utterly miserable experience.

The trick is to find a sufficiently specific spot which is unlikely to be mobbed, where there are things to keep you entertained while you wait.

A couple of days ago, when the agreed destination was China Town, the meeting point was designated at the east end of Gerrard St.  A random spot plucked from the air when my mind was otherwise blank.

I was early, as usual.

It’s a part of London that I often pass by in a hurry somewhere else, and know that it is China Town, the gates in the street are there to prove it, but in truth I very rarely look at it properly, or look at it as closely as I would if I were in China Town in New York or any other city.

But it is a part of central London on which a different aesthetic has been imposed.

I took all of these photos standing in approximately the same spot, looking in each direction.

About 20 years ago I served on a jury on a case in which the key question we had to decide was whether or not a drugs transaction had taken place at the public telephone boxes beside the Fire Station just up from Gerrard St.  The phone boxes, at the time, were standard red, but had little pagoda type roofs to ‘co-ordinate’ with the newly installed gates.

The phone boxes are long gone, victims of the general withering of the public telephone, but when I use the street as a cut through from Shaftesbury Avenue to Leicester Square I frequently think back to the case, and wonder.

It seemed to me at the time that the defendant had definitely been up to no good, but that the prosecution had failed to make their case sufficiently clearly.  Clinging to my belief in the principal of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ of the thing of which one is accused, I remember listening with incredulity to a fellow jury member voicing the opinion that for the defendant to be in court was all the proof he needed to convict.  I think we would all get a bit of the spirit of Henry Fonda in ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in us at that point, wouldn’t we?

Spend enough time anywhere and a story will emerge…..

Home Tourist

I was in Westminster on Wednesday to meet a friend who lives nearby, and as I was a bit early I walked down from Leicester Square.  It’ a part of London I know well, and am often in a hurry to get somewhere when I’m there; and it’s very easy to become extremely irritated by all the people taking photos, strolling aimlessly and generally getting in my way.

Instead, I decided to join them, and walked through Admiralty Arch to see The Mall decorated for the State Visit of the Obamas.  It is one of the moments that made me reflect what a beautiful city London can be, and how well it brushes up for the big occasion.

I only had the camera on my phone with me so it’s not a great shot, but I did walk to the middle of the road in rush hour traffic to take it, but more so that I could actually see the overall effect of the flags amid the trees leading up the vista towards the Palace.

I’d caught the end of President Obama’s address at the Palace of Westminster on the television before leaving home; I’d not intended to watch it, but there was something about the manner in which he was speaking that hooked me.  In many ways the message was of ideals rather than plans or ideas, and there was quite a lot to argue with in the post facto justification of the actions in Libya, but he is an incredibly charismatic speaker.

The audience in the hall sat in transfixed silence as he delivered a preacher’s message, full of rhetorical pauses, and carefully cadenced and structured phrasing.

It’s a class act, even if I can’t agree with everything he says, I’m glad there is someone who uses language so well and poetically speaking.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve found myself looking at the photos of the Obamas in the press and admiring what a great looking couple they are.  In group shots Barak Obama’s smile is dazzling, the Queen looks tiny, and Prince Charles rather raddled; Michele Obama looks tall, athletic and elegant and the new Duchess  looks like a fawn stick.

It’s an incredible powerful subliminal message, about image, but I find that I am able to take much more pride in the way the city has hosted this event than in the over the top pageantry of the wedding last month.  Both are symbolic ceremony, but this had less of the heritage soap opera about it.

As an avid fan of The West Wing I was very excited to see a vehicle, presumably for second or third level backup staff, with a ‘FLOTUS’ sign in the window while I was waiting to cross the road, if only to have confirmed that they do actually use that acronym in real life.

I became very ‘method’ in my adoption of the role of tourist and took quite a few photos.

I’m often surprised from how many places it is possible to see the London Eye.

There are always lots of people about staring up at the clock, and instead of ducking out of their way tutting a bit, this time I joined them just as Big Ben was striking 6. (It doesn’t really lean…..)

Only the usual level of security remained by the time I went by.  We’ve become used to all these barriers and obstacles in front of government buildings, and now take them as part of the landscape.

Only the tail end of the press were still colonising College Green (with the obligatory orange suited protesters).

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