Friday, January 16, 2009

London, 4 days and a million miles from home.

I seem to remember a playground rhyme which began:
'Nebuchadnezzar the King of the Jews
Sold his wife for a pair of shoes.....'
As any fule kno Nebuchadnezzar was a big cheese in Babylon and a visit to the British Museum's eponymous exhibition this morning jogged my memory. What a satisfying couplet it is (and now approaching 'ear worm' status unfortunately,) it baffled me as a child - and baffles me still - I've found no explanation for the curious verse. The exhibition was not much help either although it was historically interesting and a triumph of marketing - small but perfectly formed - drawing together artefacts from the Museums own collection and others from further afield. The exhibitions centrepiece's - fantastic glazed brick reliefs which once clad the Processional Way - came from the Louvre and the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin. (They reminded me, but only the teeniest bit, of something that one might have found in a Victorian swimming pool - but as I say only a bit.) A magnificent striding lion can be seen in the picture above. The mushhushshu - dragon - was particularly gorgeous.

This remarkable fortified city must have been a wonderful place some 2 millennia ago but little is now to be seen; it lies in ruins beneath the ground. The recent conflict in Iraq has further compounded its destruction - the building of a military base by coalition forces on the site has unforgivably caused further and irreparable damage. Sigh. Has the end justified the means?

So much to take in. So much to do. This was our last visit on a too brief visit to that latter day Babylon: London, for a spot of things cultural as opposed to agricultural.

We arrived on Tuesday, scrubbed up well, not a Wellington boot in sight. On time too - all trains running like clockwork, even our local one which had a reputation for running so late it was often cancelled. So, hurrah - we arrive at Euston unstressed. Onwards to Bloomsbury where we check in at our hotel which is just around the corner from the British Museum. It's the Montague on the Gardens - which I'll happily reccommend - v.v.comfy and the staff are so damned nice.

There's just enough time left for a quick mooch around Great Russell Street - a bit of fresh if slightly fumey air, dodging the cyclists, buses and gaggles of foreign students. It's a bit of a tourist trap but there are good bookshops here. We resist the lure of the BM.

Back at the hotel we receive a complimentary bottle of champagne - all chilled and bubbly, just begging to be sipped. Then it's off out to Clerkenwell and Moro restaurant where we meet the eyechild for dinner thus killing two birds with one stone - good company and good food. As a bonus I met Onion dog's master who was in the kitchen; we exchanged the human equivalent of 'big licks' - a handshake. Good to meet at last. Oh, the meal was fantastic by the way.

Wednesday sees us schlepping over to the Royal Academy and 'Byzantium', an exhibition chronicling 1,000 years of the Byzantine Empire. The rooms were packed with icons and exquisite treasures, both sacred objects and those from everyday life; packed too with visitors who made this particular exhibition torture for me. I wonder if the Royal Academy attracts a certain patron? Ancient and ill-mannered with a propensity for placing themselves directly infront of whatever I was quite obviously trying to read or look at - they definitely made better doors than windows. I'm not sure what I took in - mostly I got crosser and crosser with all the elbows and tweed suits that were in my way. Rant over?

Later we took our seats at the opera - Turandot - Puccini's final and unfinished work that's probably best known for Calaf's 'Nessum dorma' - an aria which will be forever football. It's an opera I'd not seen before, enjoyable but probably not one I'd hurry to see again. Another spectacular production with a huge chorus, dancing and fine individual roles. I still find those moments when the orchestra, in its dimly lit pit, tunes up before launching into the overture thrilling and filled with anticipation. But in Turandot we're launched straight into the first act - indeed the chorus has already quietly taken their places before the house lights have gone down. So suspend belief, sit back and enjoy. We did.

Thursday - another day another dose of 'culture' - hope you're keeping up. 'Rothko' at Tate Modern. A few swipes of the Oyster card and we're crossing the Thames keen to get inside and out of the biting wind. The Turbine Hall is a wonderful space, vast and empty, occupied at one end by an installation involving giant spiders and tubular bunk beds. What? Don't ask me. I know if I had taken our sons there as young children they would have whooped and roared in the emptiness. But we are now sober adults so we escalated up to the 4th floor and the galleries displaying Mark Rothko's painting. I quote: 'Rothko’s iconic paintings, composed of luminous, soft-edged rectangles saturated with colour, are among the most enduring and mysterious created by an artist in modern times. In the exhibition his paintings glow meditatively from the walls in deep dark reds, oranges, maroons, browns, blacks, and greys.' Hmm. That sentance is quite sensible but can't Art-speak be such pretentious twaddle?

Enduring and mysterious? Maybe they are, these great slabs of colour, which I was curious to learn was built up in layer after layer. Analysis, not unlike archaeology has revealed the artist's process in 'building' these works. There is more to them than simply meets the eye. It would be easy to dismiss the 'black on black' paintings as a waste of effort - to the casual viewer there is little to 'see'. Those works do ellicit a response though, there is a play of light, a serenity and, with my designer's hat on I can see, in the more colourful works in particular, a satisfying balance of form, pigment and texture. Interestingly Rothko resisted explaining the meaning of his work. So I'm not even going to try.

Out into the air again, ever onward and across Norman Foster's 'blade of light across the river' - the Millennium Bridge - perhaps most famous for an engineering blip which caused it to wobble alarmingly. (The problem was fixed but if you want a fuller explanation or for your brain to hurt check out this link.) It takes us over the flannel-grey waters of the swirling Thames; from the South Bank to the steps of St Pauls. Perhaps we'll make a short detour here and view Wren's masterpiece. However it comes at a price: £11.00. I know why they are charging - the upkeep must be staggering - but I am not inclined to dig that deep into my pockets. We trudge off, me to worship the great Gods of Retail and Alan to the National Gallery.

Now Oxford Street is indeed a modern Babylon, where the babble of different tongues is heard and the palaces of the Retail Gods rise up all around. It's crazy busy but a gal's got to do what a gal's got to do - and that's investigate the cheap cashmere at Uniqlo. It turns out that as it's mid-January winter stock has made way for lighter Spring wear. In other words cashmere has been side-lined for cotton. Do they not know it's cold outside? I anticipate warmer days and buy a sweater because of course in June when this will come in handy I imagine that it will be time for winter woollies to line the shelves again. £14.99 by the way. Bargain.

Time to go to Covent Garden where I have noticed that shoe shops are thick on the ground which I feel will satisfy my need for shoes. I pick up flowers at Liberty's en route. (They're for our friends who we will meet for dinner later on.) A bunch of flowers on a busy street is a Bad Idea and I spend much time keeping them from being squashed. I'm side-tracked by a music shop which sells sheet music. We'd failed previously to find a piece of music for the Young Farmers - and I fail to get it here too. But I am directed to Denmark Street where there's a chance that someone will download and print it out for me. I make my way to Soho, my feet wearier with each step. These pavements are hard.

There's not much point in buying shoes now I reflect - I've lost the will to shop and mainly want to sit down with a cup of tea and a hobnob. But hurrah and double hurrah - I am able to buy the music, and after a quick phone conversation with our producer at home in Shropshire, another piece as well. Perhaps because I am well out of striking distance M informs me that 'by the way - you'll be doing the lighting...hope that's OK?' Oh.

My flowers, shopping, music and I make it back to the hotel through the late afternoon rush. How busy it is. I guess right now at the top of the Long Mountain there will be just the rush of wind through the conifers of Badnage Wood and the roosting noises of pheasant, raven and buzzard eerie in the dying light.

Finally, off to dinner in Wandsworth - via Battersea. (And if flowers are a nuisance on the street then they are a greater pain on busy Tubes, what with all the pushing, shoving, jostling that a journey seems to involve.) We have drinks and nibbles in our friends' apartment which overlooks the river. There's a heliport a short distance away and the arrival and departure of helicopters provides brief diversions. How pretty London is lit up at night, all its blemishes lost under cover of darkness, lights reflected in the dappled water, nothing is still. Dinner is a delicious treat at Chez Bruce on Wandsworth Common.

By Friday morning we are flagging but find enough energy to get to the British Museum (which is where I started). Then Euston, Birmingham and on to home. The city and its suburbs slip away, we glimpse the countryside, dark and winter sombre, as we dash past. Stops at Wolverhampton, Telford, Wellington and Shrewsbury puncutate the journey till finally we see the low slopes of the Long Mountain and know that home is but minutes away.

And we are back - and it is as if we've never been away. There were moments when I thought that a sweet little apartment and access to London's Arts and opportunities would be quite a fine thing, but now I'm not so sure.

Could I get used to metropolitan life? 4 days without mud has been excellent - and all that 'culture' too has been marvelous of course - but what price can be put on the space, silence and skies that we are privileged to enjoy in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan? Or the wind in the trees and my lovely neighbours who have time to talk? The flowers, the birds and the small wild creatures that scuttle through the hedgerows? These things can't be bought. I've answered my own question and we'll just have to put up with the mud.

12 comments:

Tessa said...

Well. Quite the most interesting, informative, funny and exciting trip I've taken to London for a very long time. And I don't even have shin ache from pounding the pavements. Thank you for taking us along - it was fantastic!

elizabethm said...

What a fantastic amount of fantastic stuff you packed in! I love London, it is a great city. Wonderful to go, especially if you are going for fun like this, and wonderful to come away again too.
I think you have it right - a visit every now and then and your kingdom for most of the time is the perfect balance.

Zoƫ said...

We were in town yesterday - went to see the Lion King at the Lyceum. We went as a family to celebrate Tom's 21st; we had first seen it in New York and loved it. I used to work on The Strand, and the iGit is a London boy anyway (Bethnal Green). I recalled the last time I had walked down The Strand with Tom - it was some 21 years earlier, I gave birth too him only weeks later!

You are right about the lights, we walked back to Waterloo after the show had finished and I stood, quite awestruck looking at the various buildings on either bank, and the more distant St Paul's. I am glad I don't have to commute daily anymore though, I could never live there either.

Pondside said...

Please take me with you next time! I've only been to London once, and that was with a toddler - a rainy November, a toddler in a stroller and yours truly aching to get out and see something. Another trip is on my mind and I've bookmarked your hotel, as it seems a good place to start, with your recommendation.
Your descriptions had me right there - brilliant.

Fennie said...

What a great time you had. I managed to visit that exhibition - very hurriedly - it is amazing just what the Babylonians did and how we still use their ways of counting and that terrible, indecipherable cuniform script of theirs. Did they blog in it, I wonder? Sounds a wonderful trip you had.

Nikki-ann said...

I'm thinking of taking a trip to London myself at the end of February (depending on work, money etc!). I always love a walk around the city and the sights etc.

Rachel said...

A lovely trip, but goodness, where do you get the stamina? I envy you being able to return home to a quiet rural haven!

The Royal Academy crowd were in the British Museum last time I was there. I think they may be a professional organisation whose secret mission is to torment those of us who have to travel a long way to see special exhibitions.

Pipany said...

Grief, you did so much! I love to visit London, though from Cornwall it almost feels like you have travelled to another country. It is good to get away isn't it? xx

ChrisH said...

What a wonderful trip and I felt as if I was there with you through your evocative description. I do miss that kind of cultural blast here but I wouldn't give this up easily. I do love Rothko.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

I need a rest now! Crikey you dnt do things by halves do you?

GeraniumCat said...

The inconsiderate elbows aren't exclusive to the RA, I keep finding them in front of me at exhibitions.

Sounds as if you had fun though...

KittyB said...

glad someone else has manic visits to London. The hotel looks lovely. Ah - the British Museum - son Harry's official favourite place. And I was bought some beautiful earrings that look like olive branches so I'm kind of loving it too. And Uniqlo cashmere for £15? Bargain! I would have bought more.
Verification word here is hicoloob. Fab.