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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.