A man can lose himself in London

I have always loved London.  Although born and brought up in Nottinghamshire, from an early age I have always felt engaged with our capital.  As a boy my parents regularly took my brother and me on day trips to London, sometimes to site-see and other times to visit shops.  A treat for me was being dropped off at Hamley’s toy shop on Regent Street where I would happily spend hours exploring its seven floors of fun.  As I grew older my taste in toys would develop with me as Action Man was pushed aside in favour of Subbuteo Football and all its many accessories.  A highlight was in 1975 when my brother won a drawing competition and the prize was £60.00 worth of Hamley’s vouchers.  In 1975, £60.00 was a lot of money even split 50/50 between us.

In the late 1980s old school friends would move to London which gave my more grown- up self opportunities to savour the city’s pubs and clubs as well as attending the odd party.  I once went on a football coach run by Nott’s County FC to see them play Millwall and recall the excitement in me just from seeing that change in architecture so unique to London; the brown bricks and white window frames, buildings piled on top of buildings and that instantly recognisable character, the Londoner.

I support a London football team – Tottenham Hotspur and my favourite band, Saint Etienne, are from London too.  London never lets you down, it is loyal, it is faithful, it always has something to offer.  And so, on Wednesday June 13th, I set off on the train from Preston to arrive in London Euston at 12:33.

First stop, The London Review Cafe.

I have three favourite shops in the UK; Rough Trade in Nottingham, Oi Polloi in Manchester and The London Review Bookshop set in Bloomsbury in London.  I cannot  visit London without paying a visit to the LRB bookshop and its cafe which is the only place I know selling palatable vegan food.

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The book shop is on the right, the cafe is on the left.  The menu is small and light, the food is reliably excellent, the selection of teas perfect.  There is an opening between the cafe and bookshop so you can easily walk between the two.  From the book shop I bought a couple  – Transit by Rachel Cusk and Yalo by Elias Khoury.

Next, a short walk to The British Museum for The Rodin and the art of Ancient Greece exhibition.  I have memories of visiting the Tutenkhamoun exhibition here in 1972 only to arrive with my family without booking a ticket and turning back on seeing the queue snake all around the forecourt, through the gate and around the iron railings surrounding the museum.  No such problems this time, just a short wait to have my ruck-sack scanned and I was on my way in.  Inside the museum I was surrounded by Japanese and Chinese tourists who seemed more interested in taking photos of themselves on stair cases and cafes rather than taking an interest in the exhibits  Which was fortunate because there was no great line to buy tickets for Rodin.  £17.00 lighter I made my way into the exhibition.

My knowledge of art and sculpture is scant but I had read some rave reviews about this exhibition beforehand and I was determined to see it and appreciate it.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I walked in and was confronted by The Kiss.

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I was surprised at first to learn that this amazing feature is carved out of plaster but standing beside it I really fancied having a snog with someone (ahem).  Composing myself I moved on to something equally as familiar, the mighty Thinker.

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To be close to a great sculpture is to recognise the delicacy of the work of the artist and how something so subtle and so sublime can emerge at his or hands, from what is, essentially a lump of rock.  As well as Rodin’s work, the exhibition had several items of sculpture from the works of Ancient Greeks including relics and fragments from The Parthenon.  It was all amazing to see and it was so tempting to reach out a hand to touch a work of art forged by hands over two and a half thousand years ago.  I didn’t but these works which convey such movement and such delicacy almost look as if they possess like itself.

I had a bit of time to kill after the museum so I had a walk down to Soho and a mooch round the shops there.  Aware that an Oi Polloi exists somewhere in the area I managed to locate it and buy a light knit jumper and bum bag.  The shop isn’t quite on the scale of it’s Mancunian big brother but it still sells a great array of clobber which I could easily have thrown too much money at.

Then it was off to my final port of call, The Institut Francais de Royaume Uni in South Kensington, practically opposite that other architecturally fine building, The Natural History Museum.

I had come to London today specifically to attend an event to promote the new book by Anglophile, Parisian author Agnès Poirier, Left Bank.  I first came across Agnès Porier on the BBC News Channel programme, Dateline London.  Thown together with a host of other British and foreign news correspondents, a panel of 4 debate and discuss the national and international news of the day.  I always found Mme Poirier interesting for her Gallic charm, wit and general wry take on the news of the week.  I often feel she is not as sharp or as on point as many of her more serious news colleagues but I find she excels in the written word such as her Guardian Newspaper article on the reaction to the #MeToo campaign in France and of course her new book, Left Bank .

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I’m about two thirds of the way through Left Bank and it’s an excellent book.  It tells the story of Paris between 1940 and 1950, under German occupation followed by the rise of the existentialist movement through the formidable figures of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and a host of other artists, intellectuals and writers who made the city such a fascinating place to live in during that time.  Mme Poirier was interviewed for the event by Professor A C Grayling who had recently come to my attention through his outspoken comments against Brexit.  The thirty minute interview was genteel and followed by a further half hour of questions from the audience.  Mme Poirier appeared a little nervous, not making eye contact with the audience but speaking passionately nonetheless about her subject which had occupied her over the past 10 years.  I had intended to sit on the edge of the second row but was muscled out of it by an elderly lady and ended up right in the middle of the front row.  I felt a little awkward and wondered if AP recognised me from our occasional exchanges on Twitter.  The very fine room we were in was full of books and even had a mezzanine floor which no library should be without and a high domed wall will of obscured glass panes to let in more light, no doubt.

After the talk we made our way down to the foyer where Mme Poirier signed copies of her book.  I had taken my own copy along with me and was quite delighted when Mme Poirier recognised me as ‘Fish’ from Twitter and signed my book accordingly.  She invited me, amongst others to the bar for a glass of wine and we convened round a table with comfortable chairs.  I ended up sitting next to Professor Grayling who appeared at first a little perturbed that I had plonked myself next to him; I felt it a little like that awkward first encounter between Mr D’Arcy and the clergyman William Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  No matter, the delightful hostess busied herself around us and the conversation began to flow.  I regaled people with my northern background and lamented the lack of events like this in my home town area near Blackpool but spoke positively about the Home arts complex in Manchester, even though we all agreed it has an atrocious name.  I threw in the question of ‘what exactly is existentialism’ which A C Grayling, Professor of Philosophy was only too happy to answer.  I then entered into a debate about existentialism with the good professor who appeared to warm to me after I mentioned the loss of my first wife.  We then had a discussion about sorrow and mourning and I showed him the very excellent article I read that very morning on the same subject written by Matthew Parris in this week’s Spectator magazine.

With one eye on my watch I had to leave earlier than I would have liked to catch the 21:10 train back to Preston.  So, just time for a photo with Mme Poirier…here it is, taken by Professor Grayling, no less.IMG_1158.JPG

And with one of those double kisses on the cheeks the French are famous for, I bid my adieus and left.  The train was 20 minutes late but no matter, it was a good day in London; a city I love.

 

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Books 2018 – Slow Horses by Mick Herron

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I’ve missed a couple or so of books out since my last review; a Susan Sontag, a couple of John Bergers.  Good books in themselves but the Sontag on Photography was heavier than a Box Brownie on a tripod and John Berger writes like an Olympian.  But a week or two ago, looking for a holiday read for a short trip to Spain I picked up on the author Mick Herron during an interview on the BBC TV show, Meet The Author.  A bit of research led me to the author’s series of novels about British spy Jackson Lamb and the Slough House stories.  So I bought the first and second in the series, Slow Horses and Dead Lions.  I just finished Slow Horses.

I usually steer clear of the Crime and Thriller shelves in book shops but the last time I read a spy novel was the conclusion of the George Smiley series by John Le Carre in Benalmadena, Spain 4 years ago.  And I enjoyed the lot of them.  A skim of the cover suggested these novels would be good so Slow Horses became my holiday reading of choice.  And what a book!  A great read, a real page turner (I know, I know), unputdownable.

Jackson Lamb is a blown up, washed out British spy, long beyond his Bond days but like the footballer Teddy Sheringham, his brain is worth an extra yard of pace.  Exiled to the attic office of the run down building that is Slough House, Lamb presides over a motley assortment of has beens, never have beens and nor never will be’s.  And yet when a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to behead him, it’s Lamb’s Slow Horses who are dragged into the fray for a final sprint round the track.

The language, the characters, the story all contribute to a dynamic, rewarding read.  I’ve finished the first and the fifth, London Rules has just been published.  I aim to read the lot and I wouldn’t blame you if you did either.

Books 2018 – Keeping an Eye Open

julian-barnes-art-essaysI first came across this book in a review on another blog.  It would be a struggle for me to find it again but it was complementary and struck me as a book which could teach me a thing or two about art and how to enjoy it.  Last year I visited The Manchester Art Gallery and The Walker Gallery in Liverpool.  I saw some paintings I liked and many I didn’t or couldn’t really be bothered to give more than a five second glance to.  To be honest I didn’t ‘get’ many of them and didn’t know how to.  In fact, I felt quite disappointed while walking around The Walker; pictures you had to walk backwards and backwards from due to the position of a light throwing an almighty blob of luminescence right across the canvass at the optimum viewing angle.

But then, a few years ago, lazing by a swimming pool in Spain I read Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians which shed its own light on paintings from the Victorian era. The book described how many works of art from the period reflected the growing technological advances of the era and the developing sense of women’s sexual awakening.  Paxman spent a good few pages on Ford Madox Brown’s, Work which I confronted me during my walk around The Manchester Art Gallery.  The whole canvass was a revelation because I got it, I really did get it because, thanks to Paxman I knew how to read it and solve it.  It was a revelatory moment during which I genuinely enjoyed regarding a painting.  And when the Arts Officer at the local council told me what a wonderful gallery The Walker is, I realised I was missing something, largely through ignorance.

So on another visit to the wonderful London Review Bookshop I bought Keeping an Eye Open.  I began it in mid January but my reading was curtailed for two weeks when I was struck down with flu and I had neither the energy or inclination to do anything as remotely active as holding up a book.  But on making a full recovery I returned to this very readable book which contains a collection of essays by the author primarily known for writing novels including Booker winner The Sense Of An Ending.  This work of non-fiction focuses on the art and lives of, in mostly chronological order, a succession of artists rom Géricault to Hodgkin, many of whom I hadn’t even heard of.   It’s by thanks to the wonder of the internet as well as some handy prints on the pages I realised I had seen many of the paintings described but had done nothing more than assign their image to my subconscious.

Each essay offers a compact biography of each artist highlighting their friends, their contemporaries, their lovers and their beligerancies.  It helped me understand that a painting is not some two dimensional drawing on canvas but an expression of the thought and attitude of the artist which contains more within it than the latest box-set available to download from Netflix.  As the title tells us, it’s all about keeping an eye open and not being a “window-shopping gallery-goer”, who will give a painting, “a five second glance”.

Keeping an Eye Open is a great introduction to artists and art.  It doesn’t talk down to the reader but invites them to see art for what it is and how to enjoy it.  Now I’ve completed it, I can’t wait to re-visit The Walker!

Books 2018 – Pond

Here’s the second book I completed in 2018.  I bought Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett in 2017 and started and finished it in January 2018.

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There’s an old saying and you’re familiar with it.  Never judge a book by its cover it goes.  The cover you see above is the cover on the book I bought.  I was book browsing in Rough Trade East in London and was attracted by the cover.  It’s a sort of azure blue.  I’ve looked the book up and spotted alternative covers but I judged this book worthy of buying because of its cover;  and the post-amble on the back cover.  Pond was for sale in a vinyl record shop but because I don’t have a record player I browse the books section instead.  Blue is the colour and this book had done its turn in high street book shops and was now on sale to savvy readers wary of quirky covers designed to lure unsuspecting readers.  Rough Trade is cool so Pond’s got a cool cover.

Claire-Louise is, I read, from Wiltshire.  A  rural county and at an early age she moved to Ireland.  Pond is about a woman living alone in a cottage by the sea in what seems like Ireland.  I’ve seen Pond described as a collection of short stories, a stream of consciousness or elsewhere as a collection of vignettes.  In an interview further afield the author deliberately avoids describing it as much at all giving the reader license to decide for themselves, if they want to.  I tried but couldn’t.

Each chapter of the book is named; the first is Voyage In The Dark, others are A Little Before Seven; Stir-Fry; Morning, 1908 and The Gloves Are Off, for example.  You’re not going to get much of a story out of this book but what you will get is great language, atmosphere and irritated at times.  The chapter Morning, Noon & Night begins; “Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice.  It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk; and if there isn’t, forget about it.”  And so it goes on, a faithful record of one woman’s process of thinking, capturing those internal narratives and conflicts inside our brains.    In Finishing Touch Claire-Louise is in full-on neurotic narrative declaring, “I’m determined you see, quite determined to host a low-key, but impeccably conceived, soirée.”  You can almost hear the the voice of Hyacinth Bucket warbling against  itself offering self-assurance that everything must be just-so conflicted against the fear of guests ruining things simply by, by turning up and getting the party protocol all wrong.

Claire-Louise Bennet superbly captures the ebb and flow, the straightness and digression  of those vexing conversations that take place nowhere other than inside our heads.  A lone walk disturbed by the appearance of a hooded youth evokes fear one moment excitement in another.  This is what living alone is like; introversion coupled with introspection when you’ve got time on your hands.

Books 2018 – The Argonauts

Must.Find.A.Purpose.

And what better purpose than to make a list; a list of books I read this year?  I kept a list of the books I read last year which was 2017 in a Moleskin notebook with was like a blog without the digital transformation.  It was on paper.  So to get in the digital swing with my analogous reading I’m going to keep a list of books read in 2018 here.  It may be of interest to me it may be of interest to others who knows?  I’m also cutting down my use of the comma you may have noticed in that last paragraph I did.

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Maggie Nelson – The Argonauts

So here we go.  Book 1 of 2018.  I started reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in 2017  inspired to read it after watching a 70 minute interview with the author by Olivia Laing at the London Review Bookshop on You Tube.  I didn’t keep too well up with the interview because Maggie Nelson seemed a bit coy and evasive, a bit shy I thought.  Read the book, watch the video, you’ll realise why (commas ffs!).

OK, the author is lesbian and she tells the story of the relationship with her partner the all round artisan, Harry Dodge.  Harry Dodge is gender fluid and the story starts with interests surrounding the son he gave birth to and their desire to give further birth which pans out at the end of the book.  The book is bookended by children but in between is an examination of what is is  like to embark on a queer relationship in the 21st Century – and here I imagine a venn diagram of hetero-normative relationships against homo-normative relations.  Ms Nelson uses challenging adjectives such as sodomite mothers (I know ‘mothers’ is a noun) and examines the progress or otherwise of Joe Public to accept relationships outside of the not-so-long-ago established norm.  It’s no wonder she appears coy in her interview with Olivia Laing, these are very personal issues easier committed to the blank page than to a stranger in front of a paying audience in a cosy Bloomsbury book shop.

I read this book and it made me think a lot.  Maggie Nelson is very happy in her relationship in which she notes both her own and Harry Dodge’s perversions align perfectly.  They sound like a great couple and I’m confident those kids will grow up confident, healthy, tolerant and wise.

2017

2017

Books:
The Civil War – Peter Ackroyd
Runaway – Alice Munro
The Italians – John Hopper
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
A Room Of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
To The River – Olivia Laing
The Last Banquet – Jonathan Grimwood
Eating Rome – Elizabeth Minchilli
1984 – George Orwell
Our Man In Havana – Graham Greene
As Consciousness Is Harnessed To Flesh – Susan Sontag
Winter – Ali Smith
Civilisation & Its Malcontents – Sarah Wood
The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson (unfinished)

Films:
Julietta – dir Pedro Almodóvar
Whiplash – dir Damien Chazelle (TV)
The Survivalist – dir Stephen Fingleton (TV)
Deadpool – dir Tim Miller
La La Land – dir Damien Chazelle
Venus In Fur – dir Roman Polanski (TV)
A Serious Man – dir Ethan & Joel Coen
T2 Trainspotting – dir Danny Boyle
Hail, Caesar – dir Ethan & Joel Coen (TV)
Fargo – dir Ethan & Joel Coen (TV)
Toni Erdmann – dir Maren Ade
Raging Bull – dir Martin Scorsese (TV)
Jackie – dir Pablo Larrain
Moonlight – dir Barry Jenkins
Elle – dir Paul Verhoeven
Dunkirk – dir Christopher Nolan
The Bourne Identity – dir Doug Liman (TV)
Carol – dir Todd Haynes (TV)
The Big Lebowski – dir Ethan & Joel Coen (TV)
Panfilov’s 28 – dir Kim Druzhinin & Audrey Shalopa (TV)
In Bruges – dir Martin McDonagh (TV)

Live Music:
Cabbage + The Shimmer Band + – EBGBS, Liverpool
Josefin Ohrn & The Liberation – The Soup Kitchen, Manchester
Honeyblood – Museum Of Life, Wigan
Various – Folk Roots Festival, Hebden Bridge
Saint Etienne – Trades Club, Hebden Bridge
Blue Öyster Cult – The Academy, Manchester
UFO – King George’s Hall, Blackburn
The Duke Spirit – The Deaf Institute, Manchester
Lana Del Rey – Echo Arena, Liverpool
Gorillaz – Arena, Manchester
Saint Etienne – The Ritz, Manchester

Galleries/Museums:
The Whitworth, Manchester – Andy Warhol exhib
The Manchester Gallery – True Faith exhib (Joy Division/New Order)
The Harris, Liverpool
Fylde Council Art Collection – St Annes Town Hall (guided)
The Charles Dickens Museum – London
The Manchester Gallery – Waqa Khan (closed), Dutch painters 1600 – 1800, etc

My Cultural 2017

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After a pretty dull and devastating 2016 I became determined to make 2017 more interesting and engage myself with human life.  So far so good

I have been fortunate to meet a new and good friend this year via my yoga class; a woman, 12 years younger than me, just out of a 12 year same-sex relationship.  We’ve been great for each other and I’ve even found myself, recently, sitting in pubs on a Friday night with a group of men talking drunken nonsense and frankly enjoying it.  I’ve always been quite shy and introverted sitting in groups of other men, finding myself becoming detached and uninterested but now I think, what the hell, and join in, contributing my own slant and opinion on completely unimportant matters.

I’ve been on 2 dates; one in a new town to me; Hebden Bridge and the other in a beautiful old pub in Manchester called The Marble Arch Inn.  Nothing came of either but I’m feeling better for getting out there again.

At the start of 2017 I made a resolution to myself to visit the cinema at least once a month and read at least one book per month.  Progress is encouraging.  Not only have I made six visits to the cinema already this year I’ve been watching more films on the TV; here is my list to date:

Julieta (Cinema)

Whiplash (TV)

Deadpool (TV)

The Survivalist (TV)

La La Land (Cinema)

Venus In Fur (TV)

A Serious Man (TV)

T2 Trainspotting (Cinema)

Hail, Caesar (TV)

Fargo (TV)

Toni Erdmann (Cinema)

Raging Bull (TV)

Jackie (Cinema)

Moonlight (Cinema)

I’m on course with my books too, with 3 completed so far and a fourth on the go.  The first book read in 2017 (or rather finished after staring it in 2016) was Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion, a book I was inspired to read after visiting The Houses Of Parliament in London last year.  After watching Paulo Almodovar’s excellent film Julieta, I then embarked on the series of short stories which inspired the film; Runaway by Alice Munro.  That was followed by John Hopper’s The Italians and now I’m reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing.  The Italians satisfied my taste for all things Italian and Olivia Laing’s part autobiography, part biography helps me come to terms with the loneliness and feelings of being alone I have sporadically felt since I separated in 2014.

BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Radio 4 are my constant companions; the former for great music the latter for excellent political commentary; ‘that talking shit‘, as my ex used to describe it.  6Music continues to be a great source for discovering new music and this year I saw the outrageous Cabbage in Liverpool and Josefin Ohrn and The Liberation at The Soup Kitchen, Manchester.  Honeyblood, Blue Oyster Cult and Radiohead already booked for this year and mustn’t forget Austra later this month.

When I’m at one of my yoga classes I often get asked what I’m up to and we talk about places visited, gigs attended, films watched.  People say I should write a blog about my ‘interesting’ lifestyle.  Funny, I don’t consider my lifestyle interesting.  Like social media, for every photograph we post of ourselves in smiling posture for the camera there are umpteen moments of boredom, ennui, trivia and outright dullness.  That’s pretty much how I would describe my life currently.  I envy those in relationships talking about their holidays and trips they’ve made with partners or friends. It makes me realise my life is not complete because I don’t have the intimate contact of a partner or lover.

I separated from my 2nd wife in April 2014 and last year discovered the guy she was having an affair with was my next door neighbour’s son.  It was a seriously devastating discovery which had a profound effect on my mental and physical health.  The next door neighbour thankfully moved house in January so that perpetual reminder is no longer in proximity and my pursuits in 2017 are have helped put that distraction behind me (again).  But what I have learned is that no relationship is better than a bad relationship.  I deeply regret ending my all too brief relationship with MFM in April 2015 but there is no mileage in believing half-hearted physical intimacy is a substitute for a mutually loving relationship; for me anyway.