Five days in London with my daughter, May 2011
Before Easter I enjoyed a rare treat: five days in London with my daughter Irene. We had been planning from January, savouring in advance time out away from the usual routine: and from the rest of the family. Irene’s dream is to attend a degree course in fashion at Central St. Martin’s, one of the best Universities for Fashion and Design in the UK and in Europe. Last winter I suggested that she tried a holiday course there to see if this is what she really wants to do. We booked a course on line and a double room in a B&B. Time flew, and as soon as the Easter holidays started we left for London.
The weather was warm, sunny and almost summery. The forecast said it would keep for two or three days, but be a bit cooler. I had my DK guide book, a map of the Underground, directions to our B&B from Archway station, addresses of about fifteen vintage shops my daughter wanted to visit and a list of the places I wished to see. Everything was perfect and we felt in an ideal state of mind, free from all home, school and family commitments, with five whole days to do what we liked. Heaven!
Our arrival at London Euston was smooth and easy. The train was on time. With an Oyster card we could use all the public transport we needed. Reaching the B&B was a piece of cake; both on tube and bus there was a recorded voice that announced the next station or bus stop and a screen with the names of the stations. We arrived safely in our room, stretched out on our beds and watched Glee and Friends on Channel 4. No dishes to wash, house to clean or shopping to do. I wished the holiday could last for more than five days, but you can’t have it all.
During the period between Christmas and Easter holidays I had worked so hard at home, with my evening classes and supply teaching too, that I was badly in need of a break. And as I had duly accomplished all tasks, I also felt I deserved it.
Next morning Irene started her course at St. Martin’s, Charing Cross Road. She was excited and overjoyed about it. I left her at ten and went straight to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Why the V&A? Because I hadn’t seen it since my first visit to London (about thirty years ago). There is so much to see in London that even when we have a full week there is never time for the V&A. Also, my children don’t like museums much, so we tend to see the main ones, like the British Museum and the National Gallery.
I spent the whole day at the V&A and I saw only half of it. What I especially love is the fact that you can find all sorts of objects worthy of a museum, from paintings to statues, glasses, pieces of furniture, wrought iron panels, carpets, clothes, jars, china, cutlery, doors, jewels, masks...and they come from all over the world. I find its collections incredibly enriching and massively interesting. The craftsmanship and skill of each piece on show testify to the development of philosophies, establishment of cultures and the never-ending creativity of human beings. It is proof of our ‘good’ side. Visiting the V&A makes me hopeful and benign towards mankind; it makes me forget all the brutality and ruthlessness human beings are capable of sometimes.
Many works attracted me. A wooden Christ rode a wooden ass, dated 1480, called Palmesel or Palm Donkey. A short video showed how the Palmesel is still drawn today through the streets of a little village in Austria to commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. There were also examples of wooden doors with elaborate iron work that provided both security and decoration. In keeping with the theme of ironwork, there was a large room with a collection of keys and padlocks and a long corridor with wrought iron panels for gates, screens, window grilles and elevator grilles. It is incredible how we can make pleasant, attractive and unique every piece of iron or wood under our hands.
The gallery of glasses was a special one: light effects and transparencies caught my eyes in thin curves and tiny curls.
Jewels astonished me, not just the gold and silver ones with big, precious stones, but the ones made with different metals, papier-mâché, Perspex, rice paper, mother of pearl buttons, recycled materials, straw and wood. Again I was overwhelmed by the display of such talented creativity.
The explanatory videos are another interesting aspect of the V&A. They explain step by step how a certain object is made, e.g. a bronze statuette, a watch case, a wooden St. Sebastian with gilded decorations or a hard stone mosaic. We are so used to mass-produced objects that we often forget the slow and patient work of craftsmen. In the past it took hours to make one watch case and days for a hard stone mosaic of about fifteen inches by ten.
At four o’clock I went back to Charing Cross Road because my daughter had ended her first day. She was enthusiastic about everything in Central St. Martin’s: subjects, venue, teachers, fellow students, the library. They had planned to go to the V&A the next day as well, to see an exhibition by Yohji Yamamoto, a Japanese designer.
That evening we went vintage clothes hunting in Brick Lane. It looked rather dingy at first glance, but it was full of vintage shops, my daughter’s latest passion. I must say I used to dress in vintage at her age as well, but we called it ‘second hand’ and it was much cheaper. In Rome the most famous second-hand market is on Sundays at Porta Portese in Trastevere. I was a regular from sixteen to eighteen years old.
Back home at night we were happily shattered and slept sweet dreams.
The second day I wanted to see St. Paul’s Cathedral, another site I hadn’t visited for ages. This time I wanted to have all the time I needed, to peek into every corner, climb up to the top of the dome and view the whole city. After strolling around the nave admiring monuments and pictures, I tackled the stairs to the galleries. The two hundred fifty-seven stairs to the Whisper Gallery inside the dome were deceptively easy. When I reached it I slumped onto the first bench I could find and rested for about fifteen minutes admiring the monochrome frescoes. After that I felt refreshed and ready to brave the one hundred nineteen steps to the Stone Gallery. The last passages were quite narrow but still accessible. The view outside was outstanding; the city and the river were shining like crystal.
Excited by the view I decided to climb higher and, considering my age and my asthma, I realized it was now or never. So I went for the last one hundred and fifty-two steps up to the Golden Gallery. It is not gilded, but deserves a gold medal. It was hard, only spiral staircases, and the last passages were so narrow I could barely pass through. At the end I was exhausted but the view was so astonishing it was worth the five hundred and twenty-eight steps I had climbed. Going down was quick and easy. I wondered if there were the same number of steps or if they had cut some of them out in the meantime.
I had my lunch in the crypt and visited its tombs and memorials and the gift shop where I found the Easter cards and decorations I was looking for. I felt my house was too bare considering spring and Easter were almost upon us. I still wonder why the choice of Easter decorations is so restricted compared to the Christmas ones.
Going back to my daughter’s course venue through Fleet Street and the Strand, passing by crowds of tourists and students, I could glimpse other churches: St. Bride’s, Temple Church, St. Clement’s Danes and St. Mary-le-Strand. Their elegant spires soared in the incredibly blue sky.
At Trafalgar Square I realized it was almost four. I had to hurry. Later that afternoon we had a walk in Brompton Road (but avoided Harrods) and a divine dinner in a small Italian restaurant near Archway that made pizza by the metre. The Tuscany owners cooked delicious traditional cuisine, I and my daughter devoured dishes until we were fit to burst. We had bruschetta, burrata (a sort of mozzarella but softer and tastier), half a metre of pizza margherita and a piece of chocolate cake with pears. Needless to say we slept like logs that night.
As it is usual during the holidays, I brought several books with me and bought some more in London. I re-read The Wedding Spy by Linda Chase, (http://www.lindachase.co.uk/) to remember her as a poet and as a person after her sudden and sad death a few days before my leaving for London. The echo of a life lived with joy and irony resounded in her poems and made me commemorate our loss.
The other book I wanted to read was To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee. The book had been on my bedside table for a long time and was waiting for the right time to become part of my reading background. It was great reading. I was looking forward to every break in my busy day to open the book and plunge into Scout’s and Jem’s stories. Totally absorbed by the book, I had my own time, free from any concern or duty. It was exactly what I needed to pick me up.
I spent the rest of my days in London between Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery. I also went back to the V&A museum once more to see the exhibitions about Aestheticism and South African photos. I bought souvenirs of the Royal Wedding, of course, and strolled in Green Park and along the Mall.
I spent enchanting hours in the National Gallery where I attended guided tours with an excellent art connoisseur, Richard, who explained three or four pictures in detail each tour. He went from Gainsborough to Rubens, from Solimena to Van Dyck and Gian Battista Tiepolo. He also analysed minor works like Pesellino’s Trinity with Saints and Joachim Beuckelaer’s The Four Elements. His explanations were witty, succinct and entertaining. He made us understand the paintings, starting from what we could see in the picture and adding in the story behind it. For example he told us that Pesellino’s picture was cut and sold in eight parts: each part was subsequently bought by English clients, included the Royal Family, and then assembled for the National Gallery Exhibition. Tintoretto’s St. George and the Dragon was propaganda: the good Christian warrior fighting against the infidels (Turks at the time) for God’s will (though St. George’s legend is of Turkish origin). Regarding the Dutch painter Beuckelaer, his large paintings about Air, Earth, Fire and Water are both still-life, with birds, vegetables, meat and fish masterfully painted, and include Biblical scenes in the background. Besides – as I often found in Dutch paintings last summer at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – there is an explicit sexual reference in each painting clearly shown in the positions of the animals, the shapes of vegetables, the exploring hands. Intriguing how many levels a picture can have.
The best performance Richard gave us was about the story of Dido and Aeneas from Solimena’s Dido receiving Aeneas. He mimicked a humorous version of the ancient myth: we giggled but also felt sorry for poor Dido, who was eventually abandoned by the hero and committed suicide by throwing herself on a sword.
Aurora abducting Cephalus by Rubens gave way to links with Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the other unlucky love myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, leaving us with a cryptic remark about how dangerous true love can be especially when the gods interfere.
The Contemporary South African Photography exhibition was a revelation of contrasts, mixture of cultures and development of identities. My favourite were Guy Tillim’s photos where the brown of the ground took up most of the picture, while to one side were buckets, chickens, ropes, sticks and tattered blue dresses.
The Cult of Beauty was the other exhibition I couldn’t miss, very different from the previous one; it was about the Aesthetic movement from 1860 to 1900: a great display of beautiful paintings, sculptures and pieces of furniture. My favourite were the James Whistler paintings, especially Arrangement in grey and black, and the fabulous Esther by John Everett Millais, where the queen wears a long, yellow Chinese garment, unfurling in rich folds, the vivid pattern spreading down one side.
In the evening, when my daughter finished her course, we also attended some lectures and a poetry reading at the Royal Festival Hall. The most interesting event was at St. Martin-in-the Fields. It was part of a series of experiences told by people who had worked with severe mental illnesses, survivors of tortures and human rights violations. The title of the series, Victim no resurrection? was inspired by a cross now hanging above the altar at St. Martin-in-the Fields by the artist Terry Duffy (http://www.victim-no-resurrection.co.uk/victim_2.htm). The cross stands as ‘an outcry against violence in the world’ and the weekday reflections are a chance to answer the questions ‘what does Christ’s cross mean for us? Can there be resurrection for the victims of violence?’
Duffy’s cross started its journey from Liverpool, where it was painted, and will reach Jerusalem passing through New York, Auschwitz, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Palestine. The cross is painted in mainly dark colours, with blue and red marks. It doesn’t inspire much hope but a deep awareness of sufferance. And only there resurrection can start.
Well, coming back to Lancaster I was totally satisfied with my five days in London, but longing for the rest of the family. I must say it couldn’t be better.
A week in London, April 2012
The charm of London
How exciting to be in London again for a whole week, just my daughter and I. She had a short course at Central St. Martin’s (the place where she dreams to study in the future), just like last year. I took the opportunity to visit my favourite museums again, go sightseeing and enjoy my free time. No cleaning, cooking or washing for a whole week!
This year I had planned to see some shows and also visit the unmissable exhibitions London always provides. Besides, I had a friend coming over from Italy. She had never been to London before so I had to be her guide. A challenging task, considering she had only four days to see as much as she could and she wanted to have a complete experience of the capital.
All in all it was a bit tiring, but I enjoyed it greatly because I could revisit some famous places I had seen a long time ago and also because my friend has a peculiar personality with an eccentric side. Despite the fact that she doesn’t speak or understand English, she still wished to communicate during her stay: but by using only Italian and trying to interact with an audience that didn’t understand what she was saying most of the time. Gestures and mimic were helpful, of course, and the result was hilarious, at times weird, but always funny.
This time I felt London was very crowded and terribly demanding in terms of speed and efficiency. Maybe I am just too old to travel in the tube during rush hour, or walk in Oxford Street at any time. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I had to take my friend sightseeing and I couldn’t easily avoid the most crowded places at peak hours. Or (let’s face it) I am getting too old for London at all, now I am used to the slower pace of Lancaster.
I noticed that the majority of people who work in shops, restaurants and cafés are young, full of energy and enjoying their experience in the big city. Something I have already done in my past years.
Nevertheless London has the charm of the capital: a huge choice of cultural events, exhibitions, concerts, shows and plays, shops of all kinds, restaurants and a great variety of people and trends. It might be confusing and threatening in the long term, but it is stimulating and intriguing if you experience it for a week.
London is always an enchanting and glamorous place to experience in full and brood on in peace.
On the train to London I felt exhausted. The past few days had been like one hurdle after another: papers to mark for school, my students’ grades to send, and meetings about Valentina, my autistic daughter, with her school and Council authorities. She is twelve, has severe autism, can’t speak and doesn’t understand any language except for a bit of British Sign Language, and she is deaf. Then the Friday before I left she was excluded from school (a week's exclusion at first, then permanently) because of her aggressive behaviour towards staff. This meant she couldn’t be in public spaces for about a week. I had to stay with her at home and when I left my husband had to take three days off. Luckily the Council found another school for her near Preston (a specialist school for autistic children) and she is going to start there after the Easter holidays. We even had time to visit it the morning before I caught the train.
During my train journey to London I received two phone calls from Valentina’s old school. I politely said to ring my husband. I had a headache and I was aware I had to leave everything behind me if I wanted to enjoy my week in London.
The weather was gorgeous. I wore a bright coloured cotton blouse (African style), dangling earrings, jeans and sandals. Outside the window, warm sunny rays gave me the illusion I was travelling towards a tropical country of eternal summers and never-ending holidays.
I had two good books with me: Touch by Graham Mort, an exceptional collection of short stories, and Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood, about writers and writing. Also, l had three magazines, the last issues of Mslexia, Lancashire Life and Woman’s Weekly, and a new crochet work, a bikini. I was experimenting. If the travel had lasted two days I wouldn’t have got bored.
For the evening I had planned to meet my daughter at the College where she was on a course, go together to the B&B we had booked, dress smartly for the evening and go to the Tristan Bates theatre (www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk) in Covent Garden where I had booked two tickets for The Death of Norman Tortilla, a play by Charlotte Coates.
Covent Garden was crowded and lively, like a Mediterranean town on a summer night. The air was still warm, people were chatting and drinking in the street and restaurants and cafés were full. A holiday atmosphere.
The Death of Norman Tortilla impressed me. The play starts with an apparently simple theme: the neglect of an old, mentally disabled man, Norman Tortilla, by social services. A key worker, Jarek, always in a hurry, comes twice a day to change his clothes. He doesn’t pay attention to Norman’s real needs; he doesn’t even listen to what Norman says. The walls and pieces of furniture in the room where Norman lives are covered with paper cuttings of celebrities from newspapers and magazines.
After the first scene the play develops in complexity. Norman becomes aggressive towards Jarek’s indifference, hits him and knocks him out. A third character enters the stage, Tandie, a sales rep, who tries to convince Norman to change to Switch Gas . But Norman is obsessed only by his wish to leave a record of his thoughts and repeats the same sentence every time he starts to talk about himself: ‘My name is Norman Tortilla and it is not fair’. This phrase lingers in the listener’s mind and questions him: what is not fair?
First of all Norman’s miserable life is not fair, especially if compared with the artificial lives of celebrities. His lack of love and care is not fair. The cruelty of the human relationships in the play, where persecutors and victims switch roles again and again, is not fair. The ruthlessness of social rules is not fair (Tandie says: ‘I sell what people want to buy, that's what Switch Gas says’. And Jarek: ‘A man is a machine, he must be useful’.).
At the end Norman wishes to die and asks Jarek to kill him with a knife, but he also says: ‘Before you kill me, kiss me’. During the kiss, Jarek cuts off Norman’s tongue. Once again for Norman, love is torture and loss.
This is a profound and powerful play that strikes different chords with human relationships and social issues. The actors, Robert Gill, Nicholas Ruben and Morag Sims, were perfect for their roles. I would like to see it again here in the north some day.
The following night I attended another show at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden: Fatal Femmes (www.futureperfectwriters.com).
It was a special surprise to discover the sparkling trio: Stephanie Gerra, Stephanie Goldberg and Emma Fleming. Their edgy short stories, poems and extracts about sex, denial, romance, Russian dolls, kittens and nosy Italian relatives were ironic, full of passion and sometimes rather dark. They didn’t just read their pieces, they performed them in an extremely entertaining way, keeping the audience attentive for the whole show.
During the interval I had a chat with Stephanie Gerra and found out her father was Italian from Padova. I also bought her pamphlets: passionate poems, short stories and extracts from her novel Indigestion. I loved it all and wish to see the trio perform here in the north as well.
On the third night my daughter wanted to go to the cinema. We browsed the films at the Vue cinema near our B&B and the only one we could see was The Hunger Games. I must say I enjoyed it though I haven’t read the trilogy by Suzanne Collins. What intrigued me were the links with Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity TV programs and the clear historic references to infamously dangerous games played in ancient Roman auditoria. It was a masterly mixture of old and new which convinced me once more that human beings haven’t changed much through the centuries, though technological means have improved.
After three days in London my headache had disappeared. I felt a bit tired but inspired by all the new things I saw and experienced.
Museums and exhibitions, act 1
I find time for museums and exhibitions, always. They are warm and protected places where you can stroll at ease and have all the facilities at hand (I am thinking of toilets and cafés or restaurants). And, above all, they provide a true cultural experience that opens new horizons.
This time I wanted to see the Museum of London. My daughter was doing her project on London for the short course at CSM and I wished to have a clearer idea about its history.
The museum is well organized and some parts have a great display of artefacts, which helps you feel how life would have been at the time. I especially liked the reconstruction of life in Roman London, with small shops and an example of a Roman house, the Pleasure Garden of the 18th century (a place where people from different social classes went to listen to music, chat, stroll, eat and drink), the Victorian walk and the different fashion styles of modern London.
I also took note of some quotations written on panels and walls. Pick your favourite:
‘London is the great beehive of Christendom; she swarms with people of all ages, nature, sexes, callings; she seems to be a glutton for she always desires to be full.’ (Donald Lupton, 1632)
‘Up to this time I have been crushed under a sense of the sheer magnitude of London...the place sits on you, broods on you, stamps on you...’ (Henry James, 1869)
‘I still think the parade of people and colours and tongues just about the best thing in London.’ (Glyn Roberts, 1933)
‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner
That I love London town’ (Hubert Gregg, 1947)
I visited Dickens museum by my own: it was the writer’s house for a few years and he wrote Pickwick Papers there. To be honest I expected more considering we are celebrating his two hundred birthday, but the family portraits and the pictures of his stories and characters were interesting. I also bought a book of his short fiction, ghost stories and sketches of London life.
On Saturday morning my daughter was free. We went together to the Victoria & Albert Museum, my favourite. Unfortunately the section on fashion was closed (it’ll open in May) but we still enjoyed the Gilbert Collection, especially the precious snuffboxes, the theatre section with fantastic headdresses, the textile printing part and the jewels. What I find incomparable in the V&A are the peculiar artistic objects you see here and nowhere else. For example there was a firescreen panel dated 1787 made with rolled papers on a wooden frame. It represented a basket of flowers. Another example: a shellwork vase (1789-81) with three hundred flowers made with shells from all over the world.
On the ground floor a room displayed golden spider silk, a bright yellow, sheer silk made from the cocoons of millions of spiders. They say it is stronger and more elastic than common silk but it requires an enormous amount of labour to make one piece and the other problem is the cannibalistic nature of the spiders.
There were also two interesting exhibitions: the photos of the Queen by Cecil Beaton, to celebrate the diamond jubilee, and British design from 1948 till 2012. We didn’t know if we would have time to see them before leaving, so I thought it was better to buy a souvenir. I chose a card with the photo of the Queen holding her son Andrew as a baby, a tender picture I keep on my desk at home.
In the afternoon we met my Italian friend at the bus station near Victoria. She looked at our light outfits and said she was freezing, though she wore thick trousers, pullover and raincoat. The first thing we did, after leaving the luggage at the B&B, was to go to Oxford street so she could buy some extra pullovers. Then we walked down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus and turned right into Picadilly towards the Royal Academy of Art. The exhibition of David Hockney, A Bigger Picture, wouldn’t close till midnight.
We queued for about half an hour. The night was fresh but not cold, the sky still bright. Inside it was rather crowded and we had to struggle to get a proper view of the pictures. What pictures! We were flabbergasted by the colours, the size, the utter beauty of Hockney’s work. It was so vibrant, passionate, vital, a summary of Pointillisme, Fauve, Van Gogh and Constable. It reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe as well. The yellow and purple fields, the red houses and blue trees, the carmine and orange mountains: everything was so impressive, so vivid, transmitting streams of emotions that filled the large rooms of the Academy. My friend was enthusiastic too. We bought a lot of cards and postcards but the copies of the best pictures were in the catalogue.
Museums and exhibitions, act 2
On Sunday (April Fool’s day) we went to the National Gallery. I suggested to my daughter that we go with a guide called Richard (last year I had attended his tours, each on four to five paintings, at the Gallery, every day of my stay). His comments and explanations were thorough as usual. This time it was about pictures by Antonello da Messina, Titian, Rubens and how to paint a real straw hat.
During the tour I lost my cardigan but I found it again at the lost property office. Was this a joke?
We also managed to have a quick tour of Tate Britain the same day, but we didn't have time for the Picasso exhibition. I was a bit disappointed that the pictures of the Pre-Raphaelites were crammed into one large room, hung one above the other with no proper spacing or any word of explanation, or the right perspective for the viewer.
On the way home I found some money on the pavement (no wallet or purse, only banknotes). It paid for the dinner for the three of us at Nando’s. A bit of good luck for 1st April.
My Italian friend was starting to enjoy the English lifestyle with the help of food: some salted butter she loved which we had at breakfast. As I said in the introduction, she used Italian whenever she entered a shop or she was buying little presents or ordering food and drinks. She didn’t mean to be offensive or show off: she only wished to communicate and as she couldn’t do it in English she used her mother tongue. It was funny to watch her asking for something with per piacere (please) and thanking with grazie, or saying good-bye with arrivederci in clear, rousing tones. At the British Museum (we could see only the Elgin marbles and Rosetta stone on her last morning in London because she was leaving in the afternoon) we had a quick coffee at the Café in the big central hall. When I came back from the Ladies I noticed that the people sitting at our table smiled at me: their expression was a mixture of amusement and compassion. I suspected my friend had been giving one of her usual performances. Afterwards she told me that she had had a chat with them and had showed them Kate’s engagement ring she had just bought in a souvenir shop for £7.99.
She often asked me ‘Che cos’è?’ (what is this?) about monuments, buildings, pictures and artefacts in museum, but I didn’t always have the right answer. In shops when she didn’t see me she started to call my name louder and louder so I always tried to be near her in case she needed me.
We had a good time at the Tate Modern. We both love modern and contemporary art, its unpredictable, provoking way of interpreting reality. She is a fan of Rothko and I enjoy seeing whatever is new and stimulating.
There were two videos I had never seen before: one of a man kicking a metal bucket in the road, the other of paper bags, rags and papers blown by the wind on the pavement. They relied on repetition and simple, everyday things no one notices. Though quite meaningful, they stimulated contemplation on one hand but looked like a prank on the other.
Other works of art that impressed me were circles of white pebbles on a grey platform, flashing of neon lights in a room (not so different from the lights of advertisements in Piccadilly circus for example) and the trees chiselled from timbers by Terrone. The artist made them by following the knots of the wood and recreating the tree inside them.
It was all so enriching.
Shopping (how could we do without it?)
I bought a few things. My Italian friend bought a huge amount of small presents wherever we went, both as a memento of each place and also for little gifts when she was back in Italy.
We went shopping in Primark, Harrods, Petticoat Lane and Soho, and also took in the book and souvenir shops in Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and all the museums we visited. On each visit we spent some time in a shop, my friend wavering, comparing the prices and the different items, or looking for some guides or books in Italian.
At Petticoat Lane Market I found a nice peachy pink blouse for me and two ties for my husband and third son at cheap prices. It reminded me of street markets in Italy, where most of the stalls are kept by immigrants and the goods are similar. Some brightly coloured summer dresses attracted me but then I remembered I was not planning to go to the seaside this year so didn’t buy any.
At Harrods everything was smart but terribly expensive. My friend didn’t believe me at first but then, looking at the prices, she realized I had told her the truth. We diverted our route to a safer part of the luxurious department store where they sell souvenirs for ordinary tourists like us: plastic purses, keyrings and chocolates for four or five pounds, with Harrods printed on the top. It was perfect for little presents. At the till I made the mistake of leaving my friend alone. She had a few tough minutes with the cashier, who didn’t understand Italian and didn’t find her funny, so he looked puzzled and didn’t smile, which irritated her. He was only trying to explain to her how to pay with her credit card, nothing serious.
At Primark she found a series of pullovers she wore in layers both inside and outside as the weather was getting colder. I wore a cardigan as well (my daughter stuck to her t-shirts and blouses instead) but in shops and museums it was so warm you could bear only a t-shirt.
My friend visited Westminster Abbey too (I had seen it again and again in previous years) where you can have an audio guide in different languages. At the shop she found useful wooden rulers with a list of English kings and queens. Once she was back in Italy she told me they had been very successful and she thought it would be a good idea to make something similar in Rome with a list of the names of the Popes.
At Buckingham Palace we shopped extensively. I wanted some souvenirs for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and I was spoilt for choice at the Queen’s Gallery. There was a pretty porcelain box with the profile of the Queen which I loved, but it was too expensive so I opted for something more ordinary and lower priced: a little box with a clock and a thimble for my collection. I bought some presents for my children, too, a mug and two boxes of mints, and a book with pictures of the Queen, her gorgeous dresses and jewels.
To complete the presents to bring back home I also bought a big colomba, an Easter cake with the shape of a dove in almonds and sugar on top, at an Italian Deli shop I found by chance near the college where my daughter studied.
And now I had only myself to spoil. At home, before leaving for London, I had browsed on the Internet to find some fabric shops in the capital. I had found a series of shops in Berwick Street, Soho, that sold mainly silk. Expensive, I thought, but you never know, there could be bargains or remnants.
By the way, about remnants, my daughter and I made a wicked pun. She asked me what the word for remnants was in Italian. I said scampoli. After a while we changed the subject and spoke about her passion for fashion. She wants to be a fashion designer and said she was going to dedicate her whole life to it so I musn’t dare invite my friends’ sons to be prospective husbands. I said I would never do this and I was sure she would certainly find someone and fall in love without my help. Then she asked me the name for bachelors in Italian. I said it was scapoli. At this point she said we would find a lot of scapoli at the fabric shops in Soho. If you didn’t get it right away, the joke is in the fact that we substituted scapoli (bachelors) for remnants (scampoli), which made me crack up.
I walked along Berwick Street to the end where an alley starts. I stopped and turned around because the shops said MEN ONLY. I went into all the fabric shops and actually found a few remnants, but if you wanted the good stuff you had to pay. And I did. I bought a lilac hand-woven piece of silk for a scarf (or two), a green one for a blouse and a beautifully trendy, brightly printed one for a dress for my daughter. What a treat!
My last day in London: the Big Egg Hunt, Lucien Freud and J.M.W. Turner
I was at the end of my holiday: only one day left. In the evening we had to catch the train back to Lancaster. I had some exhibitions still to see and there were the artistic eggs from the Big Egg Hunt on display in Covent Garden.
I had planned a tight schedule for the day: two exhibitions in the morning, Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery and J.M.W. Turner at the National Gallery, then Covent Garden, the guided tour with Richard at 2:30 at the National Gallery and in the afternoon the V&A with two more exhibitions, or maybe only one of them.
I started the day with a long queue for the Lucien Freud exhibition. What a different painter from David Hockney! First of all the subjects: Lucien Freud painted mainly portraits and nudes. The colours were all shades of carnation with blues and greys for the strong chiaroscuro. The faces and bodies he painted had the texture of sculptures, because of the thick impasto he abundantly applied and also the effect of strong contrast between light and shade, his dissected faces like a cubist still life. They were surprisingly classical and realistic like Roman marble busts, yet strikingly postmodern in the expressions and poses of the models he portrayed. Because of the size of most of the pictures and all the flesh he painted, Freud’s work reminded me of Rubens. But there is no illusion or mythological vision in his psychological portraits, in the helpless wild nakedness he pitilessly paints again and again.
Together with the ticket there was a booklet with explanations about every period and development of his career as well as comments on most of the pictures: very helpful indeed.
As soon as I finished with Lucien Freud I started with Turner, Turner inspired in the light of Claude. The exhibition compared some pictures of the two artists, Claude Lorrain (1604-1682) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), focusing on the position of light in their works. Similarly to Claude, Turner set the sun in the middle of his pictures and its expanding golden light, typical of setting or rising sun, moulded the figures and buildings of his compositions. Both artists were inspired by Italian landscapes near Rome and in Tivoli. Claude’s figures are always composed and defined, but on the other hand Turner’s pictures have a vitality and a movement that make them alive, modern and new. In time the dazzling light in the centre becomes thicker and invades the pictures in Turner’s work. The buildings and trees become sketchy figures of sienna earth and Van Dyck brown. He showed remarkable research on the effects of light that today, after the Impressionists, makes him a forerunner.
At Covent Garden market I finally saw the famous eggs of the Big Egg Hunt (www.thebigegghunt.co.uk). I had discovered only one egg while they were still scattered around London, so I was more than happy to have them all in one place. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to take pictures of the whole range (they were more than two hundred). I was distracted by the performances, stalls, shops and people hanging around the market, such a colourful and lively place. Children were going round ticking a booklet with pictures of all the eggs on display. It was a great idea which raised a lot of money for charities, as the eggs were sold for thousands of pounds.
I couldn’t resist paying a visit to Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop where I finally found what I hoped for: Punch and Judy puppets. They were not the very expensive ones with wooden heads, but neither were they made of plastic. They were soft puppets made of fabric with the grin typical of Punch and Judy, ideal for my collection (yes, I have also a collection of puppets and marionettes). I bought them straightaway, adding another bag to our already bulky luggage.
In the afternoon I had planned a guided tour at the National Gallery with Richard, but he wasn’t there and the substitute was rather dull, I’m afraid, so I opted for a hot chocolate and a bit of rest on a sofa in the ground floor café . I still had the V&A to end my day.
The café sofa was so comfortable, the hot chocolate so warm and I was so weary that I didn’t get up till half past four, just in time to meet my daughter at the college and catch the 6:30 train to Lancaster. I suspect I dozed off a bit while I was pretending to read.
This did recharge my batteries, a good thing because the 6:30 train was full (except for coach E) and we couldn’t reserve a seat. When the train arrived everybody rushed to coach E. I took care of most of the luggage so that my daughter could run and grab two seats. We were lucky because there were several people standing all the way to Lancaster and beyond.
I must say I was exhausted. I really needed a rest: at home this time.
A day in London, April 2013
Exhibitions and shopping
My daughter and I had planned, for a long time, to spend a day in London. Eventually the opportunity came when she was called for an interview at the Central St Martins College of Arts and Design.
When we arrived in the morning the hall was packed with students holding huge folders and waiting to be summoned to display their portfolios in the appointed rooms. On the walls was an exhibition by CSM students: a headgear of golden arrows and feathers, a tribute to Mata-Hari (Dutch spy and erotic dancer), a necklace-like collar linked to Dr Who stories, and crocheted chains, bunched, evoking invasive vines. Interesting and tremendously original.
The first thing we wanted to see was the Valentino, Master of Couture exhibition at Somerset House. His outfits ranged from late 1950s to 2008, with two evening gowns designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli in 2011-12. It was all so impressive, so exquisitely elegant and sophisticated it seemed impossible that real people had worn such dresses. Well, not ordinary people anyway, but actresses and princesses, like Monica Vitti, Anna Hathaway, Julia Roberts and Farah Diba.
I loved most of them but I was especially fond of the 1960s fashion, its simple style relying mainly on the cut of the dress rather than trim and embellishment. But I greatly admired the decoration and detail of some of the gowns: all handmade, all very rich and very innovative. My favourite one was a chiffon evening dress in autumnal colours.
Unfortunately no photos were allowed and there wasn’t a proper catalogue of the exhibition, only a book of Valentino’s photos. At the entrance there were some of Valentino’s original sketches and a huge white flower up on the wall where patterns of his fabrics and colours were projected, giving a fascinatingly dreamlike suggestion of the changing of the seasons.
In the final room of the exhibition was the wedding dress of Marie Chantal-Miller, who married Prince Pavlos of Greece in London on July 1995. Valentino Atelier's work was an extremely interesting display. There were videos explaining how to make some of his most original creations: pagine (disks of organza silk piled to create a page effect), roses made with silk and nylon tulle or with organza silk, incrostazioni (sections of cut lace laid upon a tulle base) and budellini (silk rolled and sewn around a looped length of wool). I’ll try some of them in my own creations sooner or later.
More information on Valentino is available on his website: www.valentinogaravanimuseum.com
Afterwards we had a quick lunch and went to see Manet Portaying Life at the Royal Academy. We didn’t have much time left and there was a long queue for the tickets. In the gallery there were a lot of people but it wasn’t really crowded. The portraits gave a clear idea of the development of Manet’s painting from Realism to Impressionism and how his art expressed itself at its best in the sketchy, strong chiaroscuro technique of the Impressionist period. The famous portrait of Berthe Morisot was one of the best pieces, where he captured the sweet and intelligent expression of the sitter (who was a painter herself). My favourite was The Swallows, a painting of his wife and mother-in-law dressed in grey and black, sitting on a meadow with swallows flying around them. Here Manet's skill is so impressive in his quick expert brush strokes that it seems a miracle of art. The other fabulous piece was The Railway, a realistic and, at the same time, Impressionist and modern composition where the painter catches again the knowing yet ambiguous expression of the sitter.
We were out at half past three and still had to do some shopping, collect my daughter’s work from CMS and catch the 17.30 train for Lancaster. We rushed up Regent Street looking for a present for my husband (I found a striking shirt plus even more striking tie for his birthday) and for H&M, where my daughter wanted to buy a pair of black trousers she had seen, but could not yet buy, online.
At H&M I browsed along the sale rails and found a beautiful fuchsia coat at £10. What a bargain! I took it without thinking twice. Then I waited and waited for my daughter, went up to the first floor and back downstairs. Finally I spotted her. She said she couldn’t find the trousers she had in mind, and the shop assistant she had asked wasn’t much help. We rushed about the shop looking at everything black...and we found them, heaped on the side of a clothing rail, with only one suitable size left. We grabbed it, paid and dashed to the underground station.
Near CSM there is a fantastic Italian deli we couldn’t miss. We popped in and helped ourselves to torroncini, a small version of torrone (a confection similar to nougat) and luganega (a slim Italian sausage), which I planned to prepare and serve with polenta (a typical north Italian dish my husband adores).
The journey home was smooth and relaxing. We were looking forward to wearing our new clothes and tasting the delicious torroncini.
My arts tour during October half term, 2013
Last October I had an incredible arts tour with my daughter. I wanted to see Much Ado about Nothing at the Old Vic and also go to the Francis Bacon and Henry Moore exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. My daughter wanted to see the Costume Gallery in Manchester, which had just re-opened, so we tried to organize our visits to tick all the boxes.
We attended the afternoon performance at the Old Vic and greatly enjoyed our day out. Much Ado was cleverly set after WW II and supremely performed. I was glad to see elderly actors perform the parts of lovers and start a fresh, engaging love story.
As we were in London for two days we decided to go to the exhibition on portraits in Vienna in 1900 at the National Gallery. It was enriching to see how artists coming from different backgrounds and different parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created such a thriving cultural atmosphere in Vienna. My favourite artist was definitely Egon Schiele with his impressive use of colours which create dark and light inside the figure, using different pigments instead of shades. But I also liked some works by Kokoschka , Klimt and Gerstl. This was the period of Sigmund Freud, Wittgenstein, Musil and Schoenberg when original, challenging works flourished in a tolerant and liberal social climate, unfortunately followed by repression and the Great War which ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
My favourite piece was a nude portrait of Marietta by Broncia Koller. Marietta was a maid from Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her face is set inside a golden square, the artist depicting her expression in a graceful yet realistic way, achieving a good balance between attention to detail and impressionism. Marietta’s eyes and mouth convey an intelligent, attentive attitude and her body is neither perfect nor elegantly posed, the shoulders being skinny and the stomach rounded. She simply stretches out her legs without pretension.
The exhibition of Bacon and Moore at the Ashmolean was engrossing. Both artists were inspired by Michelangelo, Rodin and Picasso, and knew each other’s works. The aim of the exhibition was to compare their works by putting them next to other. The effect is striking, intriguing. The viewer can see how problematic, suffering and complex Bacon’s figures are, and, on the other hand, how archetypical, mythical and stable Moore’s statues stand.
I loved Moore’s drawings of WW II. They look like graffiti of another, prehistoric era, an underworld that reflects our own, but reduced to its essentials. I must say that I feel much more comfortable with Moore’s sculpture than with Bacon’s paintings. Moore confirms our past and sets firm, reassuring, solid steps for the future. On the contrary Bacon’s paintings are shifting, apparently unmoving on the canvas but in fact they never rest. And there is a sense of pain in his reds, pinks and blues. Certainly both artists represent different but true sides of mankind.
Our visit to the Gallery of Costumes in Manchester was more relaxing. A permanent exhibition of outfits from 17th century till now is displayed, as well as a temporary exhibition of Christian Dior’s dresses. I was amazed by the fact that his outfits sold so well that at a certain point they were valued at 5% of all French exports.
In the permanent collection I was fascinated by a room dedicated to clothes and accessories collected by C.W. Cunnington and by his comments on the ‘typical’ middle-class Victorian woman (he called her the ‘perfect lady’). He was a doctor interested in Freud and interpreted fashion, especially woman’s fashion (why not man’s fashion?), according to Freudian psychology. His questions are about the relationship between Victorian women, fashion and social rules. Of course repressed sex is involved, as it is always with Freud...and the Victorians. He says that the Victorian woman reveals and conceals at the same time (an old practice to attract men, and vice versa). Apparently this is not so true today (we’d rather reveal than conceal), though fashion still artificially creates an ideal or highly desirable woman, not just to appeal but more often to sell, as in the celebrity business.
We also decided to take a quick trip to Manchester Art Gallery, as we were near the centre. It’s a fantastic art gallery with some great pieces. My favourite had been a picture of a sea storm by J.M.W. Turner. Unfortunately it wasn’t there anymore. There were second-rate scenes by an unknown painter in its place. Luckily our time wasn’t wasted as there was an exhibition by Grayson Perry on The vanity of small differences. Beautiful, colourful tapestries depicting the rise and fall of Tim Rakewell, impressive and terribly entertaining. I love the way he imitates neon light advertisements and the characters of TV serials just using fabrics. And the content was engrossing, sometimes hilarious, with its cutting references to A Rake’s Progress by W. Hogarth.
I took sketches as usual (attached here) and loved my time with my daughter on our art hunting tour.