Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Two Days in London

Everything in London is expensive – always has been, also a bit shabby and smelly – sometimes when I get a faceful of diesel fumes from a passing bus on a Melbourne street, I am instantly transported to London! Oh, well … after a thousand years I suppose it is entitled to be a bit shabby. I love it all the same.

British Museum great court
Caroline had to be at her conference on the next two days, but she had the Monday afternoon free, so we set off for the British Museum – I wanted to see the new Great Court that they built for the Millennium celebrations. It is very beautiful: enormous and enclosed by a glass dome. All marble and pillars and huge statues: I waited for two hundred slaves to appear pulling a gold pyramid with Elizabeth Taylor sitting on top, but sadly that didn't happen. Must have been the wrong day.

British Museum reading room
The refurbished round Reading Room, which is now also open to the public, is lovely with the huge domed ceiling, all ivory, blue and gold. One can imagine Karl Marx sitting there in his beard and gaiters, scribbling away at that very boring Commie handbook Das Kapital. Making full use of the excellent free capitalist facilities.

We didn't have much time, but managed to swing past all the old favourites: the seated Pharaohs; the great Assyrian winged lions; the Rosetta stone; the stolen marbles, marvellously displayed on a faux Parthenon …

I'm sorry we didn’t have more time to spend in the Manuscript Room – I love the exercise books in which Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter and Lewis Caroll wrote the books we know and love. The music manuscripts don't do much for me because I can't read music so it's no good telling me Mozart wrote that bit in his own hand, but I really like to see Henry VIII's letters to Anne Boleyn even though I can read them about as well as I can Mozart's music. The man had a vile handwriting and judging by the transcription alongside, he had serious spelling problems as well. As did they all.

One of my favourites is the signature of the first Elizabeth – maybe the second Liz would have had fewer discipline problems in her family had she copied it – a woman with a signature like that does not get backchat from anyone – it is the sort of signature that gets put on the death warrants of the recalcitrant. Ask Cousin Mary.

That evening we went to the Strand Theatre to see Arsenic and Old Lace, an oldie but a goodie. It had Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) not in the Cary Grant role but playing the heavy, complete with facial scars and slicked-down hair. He was v good, couldn’t resist doing the Kramer thing occasionally, as when unexpectedly stumbling upon a corpse.

We had a good time. Caroline had a vacant seat in front of her while I had to peer past a huge guy with Kramer hair and clutching a bulging laundry bag on his lap, but he left during the first interval and didn't come back. May have been arrested – who knows what was in the laundry bag.

Barb in the forecourt
of Somerset House
On the Tuesday I had lunch at Somerset House with Barb, who is lucky enough to work there. She was a lovely teenager when she worked at the library with me, and she is a lovely young woman now. She took me to the lunchtime talk at the Courtauld, just a 15-minute talk by one of the curators. That week it was about Dutch religious art and the curator discussed a triptych featuring the Virgin and Child with Sts Catherina (with the wheel) and Lucia (carrying her eyes on a saucer) on the side panels. I found it particularly interesting as I had seen so much of that art in various churches during the previous few weeks, and I don't really know all that much about what I am looking at – it is so fraught with symbolic meaning.

After lunch, Barb took me into the Courtauld as a guest, flashing her staff card, and then she went back to her lair to resume her duties. I spent a happy couple of hours renewing my acquaintance with the collection and checking out the new acquisitions.

There is a roomful of Kandinskys that I found most fascinating because it covered his entire painting career – one is so accustomed to the pink and red circles that it comes as a surprise to see the lovely little landscapes he painted in 1904. Just as I am always surprised to see realistic Picassos and realise that that man could really draw!

All the usual impressionist suspects are still there … Renoir's theatre-goer in the stripes and Manet's Luncheon on the Grass – one has grown so used to seeing them on posters and coasters that it is almost a shock to be confronted with the originals. The originals of well-known images are never the size one imagined them to be and the colours are never the same. It is impossible to reproduce anything faithfully (unless your name is Han van Meegeren!)

Had dinner with Stephen and Natalie at the ubiquitous Indian restaurant – my friend Maarten used to say there is a central vat of curry somewhere under London, with pipes laid on to all the little Indian places – the local guy just squirts on an extra dash of chili if you ask for vindaloo.

Charlie Chaplin
in Leicester Sq
Next day I didn't have much time at my disposal – had to meet Caroline in the arvo to go back to Heathrow, so I had a bit of a stroll round my old haunts, sat in Leicester Square with my lunch sarnie, contemplating the Bard on his pedestal and the Little Tramp who faces him. I wonder what they make of each other – after all Shakespeare was an actor too, and Chaplin wrote a lot of his own screenplays, so maybe they have a lot to talk about.

Had a quick look in at the National Portrait Gallery, just to nod hello to my favourites: Rupert Brooke, Lord Byron and The Duke of Wellington.

Rupert Brooke
I also checked out the current exhibition, called British Blondes. It was good fun and I especially liked the caption next to Princess Diana, which said: "… like Mrs Thatcher's, her hair got steadily more golden as her fame increased."

Edith Cavell
The saintly nurse Edith Cavell is still standing outside the Portrait Gallery, telling us that patriotism is not enough and that she has no bitterness in her heart … she is a better woman than I: eighty years of diesel fumes and tourist graffiti would have made me extremely bitter. Henry Irving round the corner just looks down his nose with fine disdain and doesn't pretend to forgive anybody, especially not any actors who thought they could do a better Hamlet.

Henry Irving
Then I spent a happy couple of hours in the National Gallery, ambling through the majestic rooms, sitting down to contemplate old favourites, squinting sideways at Holbein's Ambassadors to see the op art skull in the foreground, and generally amusing myself by eavesdropping.

When I worked at the S-Afr Embassy in the early seventies, I spent half an hour in the Gallery every lunchtime and there were a few uniformed attendants drifting in and out. Now they have two stationed in every room, one at each end. What are they expecting? Suicide paint-throwers?

That was it for my two-day London excursion – not much time but I crammed in what I could. Caroline says her two-day course on Tax was good and she learned a lot, (mainly that they do things differently in America.) I reckon my two days were better spent than hers.

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