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 – All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski

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I discovered Walter Kempowski’s novel, All For Nothing, during a trip to the London Review Bookshop where I spotted it on the LRB Recommends shelf.  I hadn’t previously heard of the author but I was attracted to the story as it was described on the outside back cover which begins,

“It is January 1945.  The German army is retreating from the Russian advance and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot”.

I still harbour a deep interest in the war, developed during childhood through playing with Airfix models and Airfix toy soldiers and this was a story I was familiar with through the books of, amongst others, Anthony Beevor.

Walter Kempwski, I learned, was a chronicler of German history throughout the war and All For Nothing was his last book before he died in 2007.  It is translated which caused me to baulk slightly due to the last German book I read which was poorly translated from the German, Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada.  I noticed the translator of AFN was Anita Bell who, through the power of the internet, I learned is the brother of Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent known as the Man In The White Suit during the time he successfully campaigned to become MP for the Tatton constituency as an Independent MP in 1997.  Ms Bell’s credentials are impeccable and I seem to recall reading she has received an OBE or was it an MBE?  I can’t remember but she provides an excellent translation.

What a story.  By 1945 the tide of the second world war in the East had turned decisively with The Red Army standing at the border of the German Frontier waiting for the order to launch a counter invasion and bring the war to an end.  Scores of refugees are already passing through the little town of Mitkau in Eastern Prussia, fleeing from the occupied territories in the face of the Russian onslaught.  The story centres on The Georgenhof, a once grand country estate now in semi-ruin where the beautiful but unworldly Katharina von Globig lives with her son Peter while her husband Eberhard has a comfortable desk job in Northern Italy supervising the sequestration of Italian produce to feed the Third Reich.  Along with the von Globigs lives a sinewy old spinster, the indomitable housekeeper ‘Auntie’ who keeps everything running, a pair of squabbling Ukrainian women and a former Polish army private.  The house is visited upon by a succession of characters who help make up the ensemble cast of the book and whose own stories intertwine with those of the refugees in their great trek west.

The pessimism contained in the book’s title provides an inkling of where the story goes as defeat for Nazi Germany looms and the family face the prospect of joining the refugees or staying to face the Russians.  Refugees are temporarily billeted in the house and each have their own stories to tell which pepper the book with interest and intrigue We often meet up with these characters somewhere else as the story progresses as we learn their fate, often seen through the eyes of a child.  It’s a story of epic movement and touches on the plight of refugees in the modern world and the human story of those millions of people who give up everything to flee in the face of something cataclysmically worse.

Here’s a great book, written around an extraordinary story from recent history by an author we really deserve to read more of in the English speaking world.

Books 2018 – Confabulations

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What would you like to know about this book?  That I couldn’t put it down?  That I read it over two days?  That I can’t remember much of the content?  That it is utterly brilliant?

When a friend mentioned the name John Berger to me recently it lightly tinkled a bell in my subconscious but nothing Quasimodo would be interested in peeling.  But on being told his book Ways Of Seeing is a must read insight into understanding art, I was more intrigued by the content of the back cover of Confabulations which begins, “Language is a body, a living creature…”  I bought it.

John Berger is a story-teller; or rather was.  I learned he died in 2017 and, prompted to look at some videos he produced, I recognised that familiar, rugged face.  There is an episode of a 60 minute programme he made for Chanel 4 television back in 1984 called About Time in which he explores the concept of time, punctuating his own thinking with fables and stories of old in a style reminiscent of Aesop and a book of his fables I read as a small boy.  Another video sees him in an hour long tête-à-tête with Susan Sontag.  They discuss story-telling but lofty as the conversation is, it felt contrived.

Confabulations is a book of stories from Berger’s own experience which he relates to the subject of language.  Language in all things, song, in art, in objects, even in flowers all born of the mother tongue.  I was reminded of a line in Maggie Nelson’s book, Argonauts, my first reading of 2018 in which she asked, are words good enough?  John Berger is certain they are not:

“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic.  And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

John Berger’s stories are wonderfully entertaining and the great thing about reviewing a book is it provides an opportunity to revisit them.  I did and they contain more and offer more the more they are read.  They are mainly about lives, lives different to our own but appealing lives, lives we would perhaps like to live ourselves if only we weren’t so tied to the lives we live.

Please read this book.  It has helped me understand where language exists and where to find it.  It is a book of discoveries and to discover it is to enrich.

 

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.