The White Room

London

Another November night, another private view for an exhibition that makes no sense to me apart from free booze. They’ve got the thermostat turned up to thirty and I’ve arrived in a clearly ill-judged suit appropriate for the season. I should have worn beachwear.

As a rule I dislike shows that require sheets of paper to tell me what’s going on, but tonight I find myself asking the charming woman who pours the vodka if there’s anything that can help me make sense of this. She doesn’t have any literature that can help but, ignoring the plaintive looks of the usual suspects chasing a glass of warm Prosecco, she gamely leaves her station behind the booze table to give me some guidance.

“All the pictures are different,” she tells me, “taken in different places.” I’m beginning to get that feeling of ironic uncertainly again. “He told me the key is to see the work in there,” she says, pointing to a circular wall, off centre in the room, which I’d previously taken to be some form of unavoidable void.

“I didn’t know there was something in there,” I offer. Her expression shows no sign of irony or humour – so often the case with the young. She’s very willing to help me achieve understanding, but the Prosecco hungry crowd is growing and I take pity on them. They’re going to need it. “Thank you,” I say – her expression is almost pleading – “I’ll have a look in there.”

I go ‘in there’, which involves waiting with the rest of the sadly curious until a young woman dressed head to toe in black, with long straight black hair, pale skin and round glasses, senses the moment is appropriate to open the curved door and allow us entry.

It doesn’t offer any enlightenment. The projected work is presented in such a way that necessitates a constant turning of the observer’s body, inducing a nauseating dizziness in your correspondent. The small circular room is heated even more than the rest of the gallery.

I escape the small room and see a man in shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt. Wise.


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Convenience

London

I’m told this blog lingers on the failings of the modern world and how much better things were back in the day, and I suppose it does. Put it down your aged correspondent’s accumulated wisdom, hard won over the long years.

For the record, some things were better in the past and some things were worse; the fact is that when one looks back into one’s own past from the perspective of age there is the inevitable danger of subjectivity brought on by wistful longings for lost youth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we only left behind the bad things, and only brought with us the good and worthwhile? It doesn’t happen that way, which leaves room for grumpy old bastards like me to irritate everyone with stories from the good old days. It’s always been that way of course; even the phrase ‘the good old days’ seems to have originated in the early part of the virtuous Victoria’s reign, when people would look back with misty eyes to the days of the debauched Georges. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Which brings me to Tesco Metro (not just Tesco, of course, all the supermarkets are equally guilty) and their elimination of local competition. The idea of a supermarket around the corner that stocks all the things you need at cheap prices is, of course, great, and I for one will admit to using them. But then the small shops close, and you regret it but you say ‘that’s progress’ as you walk past. Then the supermarket starts to reduce it’s range, getting rid of it’s less popular lines according to modern retail philosophy. And then you realize that one of the lines they’ve dropped is something you use every day, and so the convenience of the local supermarket is now irrelevant, since the local shop where you used to buy it has closed and you’ve got to walk to another part of town to get it.


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Royal decree, number 1

London

Two streets away, the thumping annoyed. One street away it reached intolerable. Once the source was in plain view it got no louder until I was close enough to understand; the backing track for a steel drummer standing outside Boots.

Appreciator of steel percussion I may be, enjoyer of banging beats played loudly in public I am not.

When I’m king we’ll have no more of this. I’m all in favour of street musicians – even the ones I don’t like – but standing on the street playing recorded music on an amp doesn’t make you a street musician. It makes you a public nuisance.

This is true, only more so, in tube stations. I understand TfL carries out auditions for those keen to express themselves musically on the underground network. I can’t imagine what this consists of, but can I suggest that they establish whether an applicant can actually make music? Or is it considered a sufficient skill to plug an iPhone into a battery powered amp?

There would be an exception written into my royal decree though: for electric guitars. It’s an instrument, after all, that doesn’t make much sense without an amp. Then you must allow electric violins, I hear you all cry. No. The electric guitar is a distinct instrument from the acoustic, with a separate repertoire. Let that be the criteria. Your king has spoken.


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It’s Strephon

London

No stranger to the Coliseum Theatre is your correspondent, and while I by and large enjoy the English National Opera productions, many of which are superb, I’d never seen any of the quintessential Gilbert and Sullivan. That changed the other night.

G&S, as I’m now qualified to call them, inhabit an uncomfortable slice of the opera spectrum, with a reputation as being middle-class, middle-England, and middle-of-the-road; one foot in the lifeboat of political satire and the other on the dwindling iceberg of frivolous entertainment. Enough with the metaphors.

I’m making ‘entertainment’ sound beneath contempt, which isn’t my intention; being simply entertaining is a great skill, and indeed this production of Iolanthe achieved it – and a lot more besides.

Also refreshing to see the Coliseum full. It’s a large house and I’ve seen great performances of Mozart and Puccini, Strauss and Delibes, playing to two-thirds capacity. Perhaps back-to-back G&S is what the ENO’s needs to end it’s constant flirtation with financial disaster.

Hardly the youthful audience the ENO dreams of though; I’m in my mid-fifties, and it’s unusual that I lower the average age of any gathering, but this was certainly an exception. The assembled snowbirds didn’t necessarily get what they were expecting, judging by the reaction of the stony faced couple next to me who seemed determinedly unamused. A dancing peer-of-the-realm falling spectacularly off the roof of a full scale stream train: not a glimmer of a smile. An irrelevant pantomime cow wanders across the stage and joins in the chorus: nothing. Another peer with a badly behaved terrier glove-puppet (memories, for me, of Spit the Dog): nada.

Even my favourite gag of the night, the Fairy Queen’s constant mispronunciation of the leading character’s name ‘Strephon’ as ‘Strapon’ – which if you ask me got more hilarious every time – didn’t crack their granite expressions.

Nonetheless, you can now count me as a Gilbert and Sullivan fan. The skilful combination of wit and charm, especially in the hands of such an accomplished company, nailed it.


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Generation Security

Eurostar

The rollers at St Pancras security hungrily swallowed my modest suitcase, my briefcase, my umbrella, my hat and, at the polite but insistent Eurostar uniformed woman’s behest, my jacket. Apparently she didn’t need my brass cuff links, my watch or my shoes.

I was one of the lucky ones. The unfortunate gent in front of me made the mistake of having a bad knee on which he wore a bandage, which had to be removed and separately scanned for… who knows what? Assault rifles? The small woman behind me had two large and heavy suitcases; they had to be lifted onto the rollers.

Are we going to live with this crap forever now? The first wave of security psychosis has thankfully passed, but we’ve settled into twenty-first century normality – and we’re putting up with it. Almost 20 years have passed since the authorities went into overdrive with all this and the technology hasn’t improved our convenience one jot. Build a machine that can scan us and our luggage as we walk through, why can’t you?

The fact that I can board a train in London and get off in Brussels, though, still fills me with awe. It’s not that I don’t like flying, but if the hassle of St Pancras is bad, flying is a lot worse. Strolling to the station as if on a day trip to St Albans but instead arriving at the chocolate waffle capital of the world is a simple pleasure.

My millennial travel companion, however, was less impressed. Never having travelled by Eurostar before I thought she might be impressed by our swift and seamless arrival in France. “Thank god for that,” was her reaction. “The Internet connection is better now. I’m watching a movie. It was really slow in the tunnel.” Of course.

But why do they trust train staff with a public address system? I don’t need to know the train manager’s name; and I know where the bloody train is going. The delivery of a decent cocktail to my seat would be a much better use of their time.


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London cold

London

The dead sky becomes so slowly lighter. Not even a noticeable eastern glow, just a slow, slow brightening from starless black to dark battleship grey. And cold: gentle breeze cold. London winter cold. Tedious cold.

Not like the cold of Berlin, with it’s ferocious eastern ice-blast sending you scuttling from warm shop to bakery to Straßenbahn while your brain-stem aches with it.

Or Budapest, with that cliff-edge plunge through snow, then sludge, to deep, horror-filled freeze.

The London cold is just tiresome. Sometimes cold enough for a real coat, when standing in the bus queue (who am I kidding, no one queues for a bus anymore; there’s just a shapeless pavement blocking crowd), then appalling t-shirt summer once you enter a shop, and autumnal mildness on the Tube. It’s a coldness designed to irritate, not intimidate, and a city designed to ensure you are never suitably dressed for it.

A city where conversations always start with the weather despite us getting so little of it; never much below freezing or much above temperate, rarely snowing, never baking sun and, despite the myth, not even really that much rain.

London maintains its mild-mannered, even-handed composure; it doesn’t want to cause offence.


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A pub’s life

London

A cold afternoon in Soho and I have an hour.

A statement, not a question, but nonetheless there is an answer; and the answer is pub.

The age of the pub is over. Thousands are closing monthly, we’re told; and those that remain don’t feel like actual pubs. More like bars, cafes, restaurants.

And it’s our fault. My fault and yours. If we don’t go to our pubs they will close. A simple truth. One could blame the corporatization of pubs, big money’s simple desire for more and the dull conformity it nurtures, but the fact is that the attraction of a bottle of wine and Netflix is stronger than the desire to go out and drink in the company of strangers.

Or — god forbid — actually talk to them.

Inevitable, of course, that such a proud tradition should end. Society changes, influenced as it is by our apathy and unconcern, our misguided wantings. And thus pub dies.

And yet from my stool at the end of the bar, as I wallow in the warmth of a blended scotch, voices break through my self-grown keratin shell. Just ordinary conversation. Three men, standing, pints in hand, their dust covered clothing betraying a day spent reshaping the city, discuss women.

Their appearance may seem incongruous in all this neo-gothic Victorian mahogany, but here they are, doing what generations of young men before them have done: sharing a drink and idle chat after the day’s toil. This afternoon, at least, pub is alive and well.


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