Archive for July, 2015

On Faversham

July 29, 2015

Church and beer. These are the things I now associate with Faversham, a place I’d never particularly thought about before a friend took me there to mark his moving from Kent back to north London. To my regret the only acquaintance I made with the church during our visit was this glimpse up a side-street as we walked down the road to make our appointment for a brewery tour at Shepherd Neame.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

St Mary of Charity with brewery chimney in the foreground.

So to satisfy my predilection for churches (and St. Mary’s looks a stunner*) I’ll have to return, something I’d like to do very soon.

But the subject of the day (and of this blog) was beer not god. The photograph is a metaphor for the way that beer still dominates Faversham even if the range of breweries in the town had declined in the twentieth century from several to just one. The chimney belongs I think to the now defunct Rigden’s Brewery and is located opposite the entrance to Shepherd Neame’s still thriving site.

I’m always slightly wary of going on guided tours, since I find it difficult to switch off my critical faculties as a fellow pro guide and just listen to the stuff. Fortunately our guide on this occasion proved to be very engaging and competent on the technical side of things, even if the use of headphones was a bit of an irritant.

I’ve always avoided using headphones with a group, where the guide has a microphone and the group have the commentary direct into their ears. It feels like you’re breaking down the solidarity of the tour party by making it into a one to one relationship. On the receiving end it makes it more difficult to tune your brain out of what the guide is saying and allow their commentary to mingle with your own thoughts, your visual impressions and the sounds of the environment that you’re in. But of course a brewery is first and foremost a factory, and an often noisy one at that.

The tour, rightly, focused on the historic aspects of the brewery (‘England’s Oldest Brewer’), the process of making beer and Shepherd Neame’s position in the modern market. I was less enamoured of the World War Two-themed marketing, and the stories associated with it, which seemed less in tune with a forward-thinking operation.

What struck me, and has struck me on similar tours in the past in Meaux (for Brie cheese) and Bushmill’s (for Irish whiskey) is that the more fascinating aspect is the way that these places operate as factories and the architecture associated with that. The marketing of the products themselves often depends on their evocation of an imagined past that ties the commodity to a nostalgia for locality or ingredient. The waters of the river in Bushmill’s, the milk of the cows in Meaux and Kentish hops in Faversham.

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

Inside a cathedral of beer at Shepherd Neame

More interesting to me is the industrial plant now required to produce a ‘traditional’ product for a mass market. These great tanks for fermenting the beer have an honest grandeur that requires no dressing up as an underdog taking on the fizzy pop brigade of Heineken and their like. The thriving microbrew scene in Kent is where it’s at for that narrative. I could have looked at the crusty texture of the tanks for a lot longer.

Lost Joy Division album cover

Lost Joy Division album cover

But the thought of all that beer did make me thirsty. And the pubs of Faversham were calling. I’ll return for the church soon.

Pevsner describes a church much buggered about with over the years since its founding in the 14th Century. The steeple is compared favourably with that of St Dunstan-in-the-East in the City of London as being an improvement on Wren’s prototype. I beg to differ. It also promises mediaeval wall paintings, things I’ve been mildly obsessed with since reading J. L. Carr’s, A Month in the Country, a must-read book for those who wish to understand a certain kind of Englishness, and certainly my favourite book dealing with the First World War.

Faversham feels very English.

John Newman, The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent (Penguin, 1969), pp. 300-309

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition of 2000 which has an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, although one really ought to get it direct from Carr’s own Quince Tree Press. The process will give you a flavour of the man.

On watching cricket

July 15, 2015

This is a very cricket week. England had a magnificent victory at Sophia Gardens but I also managed to turn out for my local side, Archway Ladder CC on Wednesday and if selected will be playing for them again this evening. All this prior to going to Lord’s for the first day of the second Test against Australia. A very cricket week.

To those not brought up in the culture of cricket, whether tourists visiting London or people living in the UK whose families had no interest in the game, I think it can seem a rather arcane activity that might be picturesque but isn’t necessarily very accessible. I realised this talking to the checkout woman in the supermarket this morning who, after I told her I’d been watching cricket all day yesterday, asked me who was playing and ‘didn’t they only play cricket in hot countries like India?’ Maddening!!!

Such ignorance might explain this scene, which takes place every weekend in my local park over the summer.

A sorry spectacle; baseball on what was once a fine cricket ground

A sorry spectacle; baseball on what was once a fine cricket ground

When I first moved to London around twenty years ago there were two serviceable cricket pitches on this patch of ground, each with a changing room and used regularly through the summer by local teams. Over the years the council first neglected the changing rooms, allowing them to be broken into and failing to repair them when they were, then neglected to maintain the pitches so that they became dangerous to play on, and finally dug a great trench across the playing square, thus ensuring that it was no longer fit for cricket.

Then, over the past five years or so the council ploughed money into turning the cricket pitches into baseball diamonds, seemingly with money no object in the provision of infrastructure (changing rooms and practice facilities) and I now have to walk past whooping nonsense on my way to work at the weekend.*

A sign by the gate says ‘BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL  ONLY’.

Through the bars you can see what used to be cricket nets. Don’t think we’ll ever get those back.

Fortunately no-one takes this seriously and you get a lot of people using the space for football training or playing scratch cricket matches. But still, one thing you can’t do in Finsbury Park is watch or play a proper cricket match.

Which is a shame.

So if you do want to watch cricket in London where should you go? This is a small guide, based solely on my personal experience, for the uninitiated or the curious tourist.

Test matches

If you only ever go to one cricket match in your life I would recommend a Test match at Lord’s. Of course tickets for this week’s match against Australia will have sold out months ago, so you should start planning for next season if you intend to go. It’s expensive (110 GBP for Australia, usually 50 GBP plus for other teams depending on the level of their support in the UK and their box office appeal) but don’t let that put you off. Cricket lasts from breakfast until evening and while you’re allocated a seat you can also wander round the ground. This turns into a large village for the duration of the match with shops, food and drink stalls, a museum, games and activities for children and the big screen on the nursery for if you’ve temporarily mislaid your ability to rise from the horizontal.

The big screen in the nursery at Lord's

The big screen in the nursery at Lord’s

I like the atmosphere in the nursery, especially in the late afternoon when the crowd turns amiably sloshed. Watching from your seat is better, especially if you’ve remembered to take your own supplies of food and drink to mitigate the eye-watering prices at the bar. The crowd for a Test match is knowledgable, generally good-humoured with opposition fans and has a happy mixture of people of different genders, ethnicities and social backgrounds. The ‘buzz’ you hear as a bowler runs in for the first ball of the day is a sound worthy of inclusion in Desert Island Discs.

A Yorkshire friend says he ‘doesn’t do Lord’s’ because of it’s perceived/actual air of social exclusivity. This is true of the pavilion, of which more later, but is easily ignored and shouldn’t deter anybody from visiting this wonderful ground. Not often sentimental or nostalgic I nevertheless feel a sense of deep history when walking through the Grace Gates on match day. This romanticism is only enhanced by the welcome guilty sensation of cracking open a bottle of wine before lunch. It makes me feel like an 18th century rake.

England v New Zealand

England v New Zealand

But what if you can’t get tickets for the Test?**

County Cricket***

1) Twenty20

T20 is a welcome enough form of cricket when in the correct mood or place. It’s my favourite form for playing the game as its brevity suits my very limited batting ability, which extends only as far as having a thrash for a few overs before chuntering back to the pavilion having had my stumps flattened or having holed out to a crap delivery.****

For the uninitiated it is probably the most accessible version of the sport (it was designed for that purpose) and theoretically is a glitzy wham-bam festival of cricket that’s over in 3 hours rather than 5 days. So yes, at Lord’s you get loud music over the sound system, dancing cheerleaders, coloured clothing (although what is inherently more exciting about a pair of red trousers than a pair of white ones is something of a mystery to me) and the players lounging on the field. In other words it was designed to attract children of all ages.

I’ve reported on some T20 matches and I can’t remember the results of them or any event of interest … in a game where too much is happening all the time it soon becomes apparent that very little is happening of any consequence. Sixes rain down, badly made up ladies jump up and down and the crowd endures another round of ‘Another one bites the dust’.

In the rain.

Twenty20 at Lord's, Middlesex v Rajasthan Royals

Twenty20 at Lord’s, Middlesex v Rajasthan Royals. Impending rain.

Nevertheless T20 has increased attendance and I wouldn’t be churl enough not to celebrate that. It is a good thing to do after work in the company of a few mates or family.

2) One day cricket

This really should be the game for the cricketing neophyte. Starting at lunchtime and finishing in the early evening you get to see a result (should the weather not intervene) in a much less frenetic atmosphere than T20. Take a picnic, get a row of seats and lounge your way through a sunny Sunday. Batsmen will still play expansively but bowlers get more time to work at them. The more relaxed rhythm of the 40-over game will also allow you to take a stroll round the ground from time to time without missing anything. My favourite, non-Test form of the game. Crowds are pretty healthy on a good day and I’ve rarely come out feeling less happy than when I went in. Even when Middlesex lose.

3) Championship cricket

Lord's for a county game

Lord’s for a county game, from the pavilion.

The purist’s form. Four day matches going from 11 till 6.30 in the evening. I’ve never attended the entirety of a championship match but sincerely hope to devote a substantial portion of my retirement to doing so.

You can wallow in four day cricket; you can do the crossword, write a novel, sleep soundly, talk to the players, heckle the players, heckle the crowd, drink beer slowly, eat food slowly, catch up on your emails, do some birdwatching, think about the futility of life and the absurdity of not having a choice about being born, contemplate entering a religious order, plot the foul murder of your enemies, look at a sparrow once killed by a cricket ball, grow a fine beard, compose poetry, stab your own knee with a pencil to make sure that you’re still sentient, listen to Lancastrians singing ‘Oh, lancy lancy! Lancy lancy lancy lancy lancashire’ like drunken sailors, get divorced and remarried, scratch your own hay-fevered eyes out for fun, make friends with improbable people, bear grudges towards the unaware, flirt with a barmaid, flirt with a barman, get short-changed, be bought drinks by a generous stranger, lose money hand over fist, listen in to seedy conversations, admire the boundless enthusiasm of cherubic children, be curmudgeonly to a fault, go home.

If you take out a membership you upgrade this experience to encompass The Pavilion. Here you find beasts that not even medieval European mapmakers had the creativity to contemplate as existing in yet ‘undiscovered’ areas of the earth.  Things in improbable outfits (although always conforming to the dress code) with hideous facial hair and loud barking voices. But every one of them a sound chap. Wrap yourself in an air of insouciance at such eccentricity and enjoy the deep comfort of the greatest place for watching sport in the world.

4) Women’s cricket

I haven’t been fortunate enough to go to a women’s international as yet but I have been to a county game (many years ago). The women’s game has all the skills and pleasure of the men’s. Visit my friend Raf’s blog for a far more knowledgable advocate of the game.

Park/club cricket

My own level but one that can be appreciated by the spectator. No tickets required. Turn up to watch mixed ability cricket where players of all ages compete in a weird mixture of sporting class, striving mediocrity and cheerful incompetence. Often there’s a bar in the clubhouse but why not bring your own if you’re a bit skint? There’s nothing more flattering to the club cricketer than to have had an impartial witnesses to his or her exploits who could avow, ‘Yes! I saw you take that skier at mid off. It was magnificent.’

Alexandra Palace Cricket Club

Alexandra Palace Cricket Club

Looking over the illustrations in this post I realise that there’s one thing that I watch at all forms of the game and that is the sky over England. The sky is the protean witness to all this toilsome play and it never disappoints as a backdrop to the game.

Constable, I’m sure, must have been a cricket-lover.

* I must emphasise that I am not anti-baseball. One of the best evenings of my life was watching baseball in Oakland and falling in love with the game. But that was in California, not north London.

** They also play Test matches at the Oval south of the river

*** Surrey play their cricket at the Oval but I’ve only ever used the nets there so won’t comment on the viewing experience.

**** Although this week I varied my repertoire by being out stumped for the first time in my ‘career’.

On Masterpiece London

July 5, 2015

This week I was given a ticket, and a strong recommendation, to visit Masterpiece London, a fair of arts, antiquities and design that takes place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. I was vaguely aware of the event, it being mentioned in the FT but it had never occurred to me to go; Chelsea is not really on my usual beat. But I had an idle afternoon and the ticket was eighteen quid (student rate) so I thought I shouldn’t waste it.

Whiffs of the plutocracy (already pretty strong) became stronger as I strolled down Sloane Street and through the Square.* At the rear entrance of the Hospital there was a free golf buggy shuttle service to the entrance at the riverside (distance perhaps 500 metres); a service that the able-bodied as well as the infirm seemed curiously eager to use. Presumably these were the idle rich.

Getting in was a chore of security (forgivable given the value of what’s inside) and then into the show. Let’s say that the crowd here, apart from the odd smattering of schoolchildren or students, is notable for its ethnic rather than social diversity. Food outlets from brands that trade on exclusivity (Le Caprice, The Ivy), wall-faced security guards at every corner and pretty frosty dealers were further barriers to the averagely-waged punter. It was as if the contents of St. James’s had slid down the map of London and been trapped in a huge air-conditioned marquee by the Thames.

But there’s the thing – the contents make the Fair worth the trip, and even the money.** Sure, a lot of these things you could see for free in the dealers’ rooms, but then they’re spread all over town, Europe and beyond (well, no, that’s an exaggeration, such places are quite tightly packed in a few specific areas of London and in a handful of cities). Also, much of what you see or similar can be found for free in London’s museums. But then again you’d have to spend your time moving around town rather than seeing it under one roof.

That’s the attraction of Masterpiece – it actually keeps its promise and has a vast assortment of masterpieces all within strolling distance of one another. And such a jumble of stuff! From my notes I picked out …

  • a ‘primitive’ art depiction from the 19th Century of a gig race in front of the Ravenbury Arms, Croydon
  • a poster for ‘Cocaine’ by Rene Gaillard, a theatre production in 1920s Montmartre***
  • many, many Ugly Renaissance Babies****
  • Extraordinary Chinese paintings of European factories in 18th Century Canton
  • Giacomo Balla’s ‘Speed of Automobile’
  • A ceiling high Delaunay Eiffel Tower (amazing)

'Cocaine' by René Gaillard

‘Cocaine’ by René Gaillard

And on and on and on and on. And these were just the things in which I was interested … there were extraordinary things in which I wasn’t interested at all (jewellery, cars, speedboats, stamps, rugs) or didn’t have the energy to look at (Roman/Greek/Asian antiquities, books, furniture). The whole bunch of stuff a phantasmagoria of juxtaposed styles, types and periods like the most eclectic auction room you’ve ever seen, reminding me of Anthony Powell’s observation that ‘accumulations of unrelated objects brought together at auction acquire, in their haphazard manner, a certain dignity of their own.’*****

And in this the Fair operated as a microcosm of the artistic experience of London as a topographical space. A reason to love the city in that however much it changes there are still stubborn grits of haphazardness that refuse to go away. Everything jumbled up yet somehow cohering. Such is the Jeremy Bentham pub, which in the midst of the rebuilding of University College Hospital sticks up like one of Shane MacGowan’s blackened teeth in the maw of modernisation.

The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.

The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.

Walking back to civilisation past another defiant relic – Battersea Power Station – I stopped to have a rest in St. George’s Square.

It was a hot day, one of the first very hot days of the year. In the Fair the air-conditioning was turned down to -1 (having saved oneself the trouble of walking in the sun one wouldn’t want to perspire in one’s Savile Row suit I guess). So it was with great pleasure that I sat in the Square, listened to the fountain, rested my feet and did the crossword.

Fountain, St. George's Square

Fountain, St. George’s Square

The bench on which I rested is dedicated to my friend Alexandra, who lived around the corner for all of the years that I knew her. It was a good place to think of her because despite her love of the high life (and she lived life to the full) she was determined that the high life should be open to all. She was a broad-minded bulldozer of barriers to entry whose motto was ‘experiment’ and who inspired generations of schoolchildren to a love of art and history. Having walked from Knightsbridge to Chelsea past key gardens, security guarded boutiques and golf-buggy riding wealth I was glad to sit in a democracy of livid London flesh, dog-walking bachelors and elderly strolling couples and feel able to breathe again.

Golf buggies. Really.

* Sloane Square, from which I’ve led walking tours in the past, is surely one of the worst places for pedestrians in central London. For an area of London that is a hub of shopping, eating and theatre-,  church- and gallery-going crossing the Square in any direction is a dispiriting experience. And sitting in it is not much better.

** £25 for a full fee day ticket, £18 for students, free for the under-18s but no discounts for the unwaged.

*** This poster was my favourite thing in the whole show. A thing of weird beauty in its own right it’s also a complex document of life in 1920s Paris. I want it. Sinai and Sons have it.

**** If you haven’t seen the blog you MUST. But be prepared for swearing.

***** A. Powell, ‘A Buyer’s Market’ (London, 1952), p. 1

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