Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

James Ensor at the RA

November 30, 2016

A neglected show in London at the moment, being somewhat overshadowed by the Abstract Expressionists in the same venue, is Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans. I deliberately spell out the name in full since this show is much more than a retrospective of the career of Ensor. In fact the title itself doesn’t do full justice to the range of art on offer since it misses out another artist whose work is on display, Léon Spillaert.

And it was Spillaert who really grabbed me on the first walk around. His self-portrait is obviously Munch-ish but also has its own weird loneliness that looks forward to Edward Hopper. While his portrait of Andrew Carnegie is one of the most chilling I’ve ever seen. An eyeless and soulless Carnegie stares from the canvas in a picture of utter malevolence that no amount of philanthropy could subvert.

But Ensor is the star. Ensor who starts out like an Anglo-Belgian Sickert, all still brown interiors, and then explodes into colourful surreal genius. This is symbolised for me by his own self portrait.

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A pretty straightforward depiction save for the at-the-extreme-end-of-dandyism hat. Calm eyes offer a challenge. Do you take this seriously? Well, do you? I think you should. The question I kept asking myself was, who was he making these images for? What market was there for skeletons eyeing chinoiserie? Or for a pair of skulls fighting over the carcass of a herring?

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One of them sporting a bearskin. It has the horrific absurdity of a Goya witch.

And Tuymans is no passive curator. He has inserted works of his own which echo and talk to those of his compatriot, such as his ‘Gilles de Bindes’ which refers back to a beautifully plued real life carnival hat displayed in the opening room and whose ancestor Ensor included in his own picture of carnival.

But the work which I enjoyed the most was the opening film. Rarely do I have the patience for video art but this film, a fake of Welles-ian genius, depicts a party on the beach at Oostende. Despite the inclement weather it made me want to visit Belgium as soon as possible.

But for a month or so more you can see Belgium in all its quirky unexpectedness in just a few rooms at the Royal Academy. Much more interesting and surprising than the overblown yanks below, who seem the most humourless bunch of po-faced canvas wasters set against the deftly humorous savagery of Ensor and his confrères.

#Art #London #Ensor

The Roundabout

September 11, 2016

It was not entirely by accident that I got to learn of the Park Theatre’s excellent production of The Roundabout but it might have been. It was reviewed in The Spectator on Thursday morning (a very favourable review) and fortunately we had a Friday evening to spare so I bought the tickets immediately. It might be that it had been publicised elsewhere but in my fairly broad cultural reading (broadsheet paper, the usual BBC output, billboards/flyers, Twitter) I hadn’t heard about it even though the theatre’s on my doorstep. So first of all I’m grateful to Lloyd Evans for giving it a publicity push.

In my case he was pushing at an open door. Previous to a couple of years ago I kind of vaguely knew who JB Priestley was without having ever read or seen anything he’d written. Not even An Inspector Calls! (Which I still haven’t seen.) Having a friend who writes on the 1930s and then having to teach on the home front in the Second World War soon put paid to that.

From my teaching on the War I came to realise that Priestley was just as important a political writer in his own way as was George Orwell. And I suspect a lot more widely read by the public. But this post isn’t to talk about the relative impact of Priestley and Orwell on public opinion home and abroad during the Blitz. Rather it’s to talk (briefly) about Priestley’s novels and to ask someone to do something.

My friend John recommended that if I wanted to read anything by Priestley I should start with The Good Companions. The GC is a road novel about a working man from Bruddersford (a lightly fictionalised Bradford) and his adventures on the road with a band of artistes putting on a travelling cabaret in depression-era England. It’s a baggy old beast packed full with sentimentality, harder than you expect reportage, rounded characters, good humour and unlikely meetings. Think if Evelyn Waugh had the itinerary of Orwell and the good nature of Eric Morecombe. Or something like that. It’s a middle-brow classic. That isn’t a put down.

This was followed up by Angel Pavement, which should have been more up my street since it’s set in London. I liked it but not as much as the Companions. While the latter has benevolence in every page even when at its most bleak Pavement, for all its wonderful description of London in the 30s, feels a far more angry book. It feels that Priestley the northerner has come to despise somewhat what he sees as the harder attitudes of the south, a view that I don’t entirely share with him. And the pay off is far too easy to see from early on in the narrative. But I’d still recommend it for a description of a City of London – one of hard-pushed clerks, travelling furniture salesmen and a working port all mingled together – that hasn’t existed for many a year.

Talking over the Good Companions with a playwright friend after watching The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny I mentioned that I thought it would make a far more effective piece of musical theatre than Brecht and Weill’s overwrought sledgehammer of an allegory. ‘But it’s been done!’ he replied. And at the time I thought, ‘Well that’s interesting I must look it up.’ The major problem it seemed to me would be to write music as good in reality as it is portrayed to be in the book, especially Inigo Jollifant’s smash hit Slippin’ Round the Corner. But then I left it to one side after a search on YouTube and Spotify didn’t turn up any version of a production or the numbers within it.

The Roundabout reminded me of that conversation and I looked up the musical version of The Good Companions. With lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by André Previn it does seem to have some pedigree but I don’t remember it ever being on in London. So my hope is that if the Park’s run of Priestley is successful it might encourage someone, the Park themselves perhaps, to put on the musical. Or it’s a chunky enough number for the National I would think; and with its narrative of north and south, rich and poor, individuals and teams in an era of austerity it would surely have some resonance today.

Just as The Roundabout does. So in anticipation of a Priestley musical do go to the Park to see The Roundabout, it’s worth the trip wherever you are in London.

 

Chichester and Arundel

July 7, 2016

Having spent a few days away from London I would normally have returned to my desk with a slew of reviews to do from the place that I’ve been. But on this occasion that isn’t the case as I was away for a conference of the Society for the Study of French History. So this piece is more of a reflection on that conference, a sidestep into my own little obsession of going to galleries and then a thought upon a moment of touching serendipity in a church.

It was my first time at the SSFH conf, presenting a paper that I’d previously given in Middlesborough but this time to a group far more likely to be more interested in the French than sporting aspect of my research. As usual it taught me the value of presenting to an audience whose specialism lies beyond one’s own. My co-pannelists (Will Pooley and Russell Stephens,  both of whose papers were very good (and you can’t say that about everything you go to at a conference)) were talking about witchcraft and nineteenth century political cartoons so could hardly have been farther from my own field of early twentieth century sports culture. Yet in a sparsely attended session (it was the last of the conference after all) the discussion ranged freely enough to spark a few ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me with that outside input. And I now know a shitload about witch trials and phallic imagery in the reign of Napoleon III. Result!

The other good thing about conferences (apart from the socialising, or maybe as part of it) is that it can clear the mind of applying for jobs and getting rejected, writing but ever feeling that you’re not writing enough and teaching but worrying that you haven’t given your students all that you could or should. Because by talking to other early career researchers, and I mean talking to them not reading their angsty tweets and blogs, you feel more normal about your own angst and setbacks. 

But of course much as I love conferences I do also like to get out of them and wander around. By contrast to Middlesbrough Chichester seems to be suffering from no economic dislocation, even in the early days of B****t. And this shows in the gallery attendance at Pallant House. It was solidly busy on a warm Sunday afternoon with families, young couples retirees and wannabe flaneurs like me. 

Deservedly so. The twentieth century art collection is outstanding, with my own favourite being a Patrick Caulfield room kitschly mysterious and entirely covetable. The temporary exhibition of work by Christopher Wood deserved more of my attention than I had the energy to give. So well worth 10 quid for entry.

But talking to a local who was back for the conference she said that she wouldn’t be going because she didn’t think she had enough time free to justify spending that kind of money. Which again reinforced my opinion that such galleries should mitigate the entry charge by extending the ticket for a year, as they do in Queen’s Gallery and the London Transport Museum. This would maintain revenue while also encouraging multiple visits by Chichester residents, thus resolving that conundrum about how to find a balance between earning the tourist bucks without fleecing the locals. But if you’re in the area go there – it’s worth ten quid.

And also go to the Cathedral, which is free. Preparing for my paper I sat in the nave while the organist went through a quite challenging repertoire of what sounded like Messaien to my untrained ear. And then on the way out I saw this:-

It inspired the final poem of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings (go here for a reading of the poem by Larkin himself) one of the few collections poetry that I know well. And very apposite in the week of my own wedding anniversary. A good omen.

Delacroix Days

April 28, 2016


The picture at the head of this piece is of a postcard I brought back from Paris, it must be ten years ago. A self-portrait by Eugène Delacroix, a man well aware of his own dudosity. So what joy it is that there should be such a fantastic show at the National Gallery not only celebrating the man’s work but also his role as the inspiration to the next generation of painters. Men (for the most part alas) whose celebrity outstrips his own in contemporary times. It’s good to have him placed front and centre, for another month at least, in what is a wonderful show.

What perplexed me was that although Delacroix’s diaries are referred to in both the catalogue and the labels there isn’t a copy on sale in the NG shop – surely an opportunity has been missed! The reason I was looking for a new copy was that I had mislaid my pocket-sized edition published by Phaidon, one of a series of written classic works by artists and writers of which I have tried to obtain a full set.* Well, they had plenty of stuff by other people but nothing by the lad himself. A shame.

I won’t describe at length the wonders within the exhibition as there’s still plenty of time for people to go and look for themselves. But I will pick out a plum that explains why it is a must-see thing. One of my favourite pieces of Delacroix’s is that of Christ Sleeping During the Storm. To my mind it works as a metaphor for stoicism – the apostles fret, the storm rages, land is in sight, Christ takes a nap. Patience and faith (which work for both the secular and religious among us I think) are the keys to wending a way through the storms of life.

It’s a painting I’ve seen in the NG before but the difference as it is hung now is that it’s shown beside a Redon of a similar subject. Redon is an artist with whom I’m relatively unfamiliar and what I’ve seen of his hasn’t particularly appealed – that hot, over hot, splurge of sexual-psychological anxiety associated with the fin de siècle is not to my taste. But with his response to Delacroix he kind of clicked for me.

Redon removes the tempestuous drama that Delacroix the romantic puts into his composition and makes the scene more transcendental. Nature for Redon is not threatening the sailors. Neither is God. It’s the bare unforgiving sun in the sky and the isolation of the boat, the loneliness of the scene that come across. No land in sight, a ship cast adrift under a godless sky. It shows the shift from a Romantic to a modern sensibility.  From an appreciation of the beauty and danger of nature, and of human nature, to a turning inward of the mind. And each of the works is beautiful. It’s not the only time this kind of juxtaposition works in the show, it happens time and time again.

But there are two things that I would say that you don’t get from the show but that do become apparent from a trip to Paris.

The Delaxroix Museum comes as part of a ticket for the Louvre and is well worth visiting as a warm up act for the main event.


The house is where Delacroix lived and worked in Paris with a beautiful little garden laid out as he would have had it. 


Perfect for a pause in a busy day. I was interested by a display about Delacroix’s time in London. I hadn’t realised that he’d been to England (to my embarrassment, what kind of a London guide am I?). It had always puzzled me as to why his house was decorated with a replica of a Lapith v Centaur duel from the Parthenon Sculptures at the BM. Now I knew. Delacroix visited the British Museum in the company of his English friend, Thales Fielding.** The NG exhibition goes to town (rightly) on how significant Delacroix’s visit to Morocco was for his art but curiously for a British institution omits any lengthy reference to the impact of London on his art. Which is a shame.


In the Musée D they have a couple of beautiful watercolours done by the artist of tombs in Westminster Abbey. In the picture above you can see the replica of the BM panel and to the left the portraits of one another that Fielding and Delacroix made during his stay in London. It’s a joy to visit the studio as it shows you the intimate side of Delacroix that comes across in prose in his diary but which is missing both from the NG show and from the place that we went to next, the Louvre.

In the Louvre you have the big beasts. Sardanapalus, The Massacre at Chios, Les Femmes d’Alger. At the NG they have sketches and versions of these canvases but it’s not quite like seeing the real thing. Especially Sardanapalus which is a twisted mash up of sex, violence and soft furnishings. And of course then there’s Liberty Leading the People.*** Not even a sketch of this in London. And you do have to see it because in the flesh it is breathtaking and Important with a capital ‘I’ like no other painting of the nineteenth century. Politically revolutionary from an artist who otherwise I don’t see as overtly political. 

And this is missing from the NG’s thesis in London. Yes, Delacroix hands on a new sense of nature to Monet and Renoir, orientalism to Bazille and the rest but I wanted the politics that Manet picks up and makes such a big part of his work. Doesn’t Liberty have as a descendant the National’s own Emperor Maximilian? 

So go to the National for flowers, North Africa, nature and God. But then, if you’re lucky enough to have the time and the means, go to the Louvre for the politics.


And Murat. I don’t normally take photographs of paintings but I just couldn’t resist Joachim Murat in peach jodhpurs atop a tiger-skin saddle. 

* Yes, I know that’s what the internet is for! But if I’m buying for pleasure and not for work I prefer to go book-hunting myself and use serendipity as my guide. So after leaving the NG the first time I went to see Delacroix I first ransacked all the bookshops in Piccaddilly – ooh, isn’t there a Phaidon shop ON Piccadilly? No, of course not, that shut years ago. Then up Charing Cross Road, no luck. Up to Bloomsbury for a last chuck of the dice in Skoob and Judd Street. But then I thought of the second hand section in Waterstone’s Gower Street and (marvels!) not only did they have the book they had it in a fat French edition (£15) by Plon that is just a thing of wonder (‘un monument unique’ it says on the back and they’re not wrong). I plan to progress in a stately fashion through its pages but also ransack it at random for quotes about various shit that I’m interested in, and paintings/artists too.

** I read a column in The Spectator last week bemoaning outlandish modern names. As if this shit hasn’t been going on for years. I mean, Thales?!

*** There’s a really good In Our Time podcast on it on the BBC, well worth tracking down.

La Philharmonie and a Musical Museum for London

December 18, 2015

There was exciting news for London music lovers this week as the City of London announced plans to create a new concert venue on the present site of the Museum of London. This follows the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle (surely to be a Lord sometime soon) as leader of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2017. Rumours previously had been that the government might seek to host the new development in the Olympic Park as part of a new major cultural hub. However, it seems that City intends to replace the grubby-sounding Barbican Hall with a world class venue.

I can’t help thinking that backers of the Olympic Park move must have looked over the Channel at La Philharmonie and had second thoughts. While the acoustic of the Parisian venue has been acclaimed the years it took to get built, its various problems – spiralling cost (finally coming in at €386 million) and the continuing conflict between its architect and client (Jean Nouvel and various branches of the French state) – paint a very sorry tale.

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La Philharmonie

On a visit to Paris this weekend too I had mixed feelings about the site. The Philharmonie forms part of a musical complex (La Cité de la Musique) which combines the functions of a variety of concert venues, conservatoire and museum. It was the museum that I was there for. I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket to a concert, both times I’ve tried the venue has been sold out. This is an encouraging thing given that the Philharmonie is in La Villette on the outskirts of central Paris, in a traditionally working class area and home to many first and second generation immigrants.*

This shouldn’t discourage visitors to Paris from visiting (although it was practically empty the day we visited, which is a shame). The Musée de la Musique is a thing of wonder. Over the course of 1,000 objects and 5 floors it tells the story of Western music from the 17th Century to the present day, as well as giving an overview of the multitudinous diversity of music around the globe today. Being in Paris for just a day I only had time to explore the first three floors, which tell the story of Western classical music from the Baroque to Romanticism. What did I like?

Well, I’m now a big fan of the serpent.

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The Musée de la Musique, snake-infested.

I’d heard of the serpent but had no clue what it was or what it did. I’d assumed that it was something that died out in mediaeval times, but no! They were blowing serpents till the nineteenth century in some regiments of the French army. Now I want a serpent.

As a trumpet fan (and sporadic learner) the many exotic lumps of brass had a particular appeal. Some kind of Darwinian process is in evidence with offshoots and variants finding themselves ill-adapted to survival falling out of use to become mere echoes of what might have been in the relentless march of technical innovation.

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A whole lotta horn.

And after these tasty treats there were other delectable morsels like Chopin’s Erard piano, Stradavari by the number and a whole bunch of Lisztian memorabilia. One of my favourite details of the museum was the way in which they clumped together a group of instruments in a case to show you the orchestration of individual significant pieces in musical history, such as a Rameau opera or a Beethoven symphony. These would then play for you through earphones as you stood in front of them giving, if not a concert experience, at least an intimate glimpse into past performance practice.

So yes, I was enthused. But what has this got to do with London?

The building of a new concert hall in London is surely the opportunity to do something similar. London has excellent bijou music museums and I urge people to visit them.** As I wrote in a previous post the Royal Academy’s collection is worth an hour of any music fan’s afternoon. But London lacks a museum that tells the tradition of music-making in London, if not the whole of the United Kingdom. While our pop music is rightly celebrated (even if museums about it don’t seem to be able to take off) the classical tradition seems to be something for specialists and doesn’t have a place in the centre of our cultural landscape. London’s music scene is outstanding (as I’ve remarked previously) and the establishment of a museum at the heart of a new concert venue in the City of London would be an outstanding contribution to cultural life in the city as a whole. We should celebrate London’s past and continuing role as a vast entrepot, and nowhere is this more apparent than in its classical music scene.

 

*A bit like my home in Haringey. I urge people to go to Paris for a day, for the weekend, for however long you can. The city was distressingly un-busy. I want Paris to be full of good people, just as I wish good people to come to London.

** I wrote about one in a previous post (The Royal Academy of Music Museum) but there is also Handel House and the Foundling Museum (with its collection of Handel memorablia) that I know of off the top of my head but I’m sure that each of the major music schools has its own.

Back in the north

November 28, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I went back to the north for a conference in Middlesbrough.* Some academics complain about having to go to conferences but for me, no matter where they take place (even Holloway Road), there’s always something to be learnt by getting out of the conference and having a good wander around.

This was a particularly tough week for the people of Middlesbrough as the planned closure of the local steel plant had just been announced, an action which would result in the loss of thousands of jobs. I’ve been to a lot of conferences in random British and Irish cities over the last few years, and have visited others in the course of researching prospective universities with my eldest son and while doing my own research. This has taken me to Newcastle, Sheffield, Leeds, Belfast, Dublin, Leeds, Luton, Portsmouth, Coventry, Durham, Southampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and others that I can’t remember off the top of my head right now. I have to say that of all these Middlesbrough felt the most bleak.

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The Captain Cook. Fairly bleak.

One of the themes to come out of the conference (where the majority of the papers addressed local history) was that Middlesbrough was once a town that was centred around the river, in fact was born of the river. For those not familiar with the area Middlesbrough was the original industrial boom town, even more so than its more famous contemporary Manchester. While Manchester was an established conurbation at the onset of industrialisation Middlesbrough was practically non-existent. It was built from the establishment of the iron industry in the mid-nineteenth century and grew at such a rapid rate, exporting processed iron and then steel to a global market, that it became known as the ‘infant Hercules’ or ‘Ironopolis’. The river was central to exploiting the export market for such goods, as it was for the chemical plants that also became established throughout the twentieth century.

What is less well-remembered, but was brought up by several papers at conference, was that the river was also during the boom-times absolutely central to the recreation of the townspeople with rowing, sailing and even swimming (hard to believe given the filthiness of the water in those days!) competitions being annual festive events that drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. I was glad to be reminded of this because arriving in the town now (by train at least) there is little encouragement for the modern visitor to go to the river.

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Bottle of Notes by Claes Oldenburg. Getting in touch with his Teesside roots.

The University campus is centred away from the river, south beyond the town centre and mima.** There are signs of a town turning a corner around the University campus. There’s the University itself, which like the University of Bedfordshire seems to be making a good fist of bringing Higher Education to a part of the world that old fashioned élitists would like to think isn’t suitable for it.*** And there’s a smattering of businesses in Baker Street, like Sherlock’s micropub, that show an entrepreneurial culture getting established that was largely absent in my North-East town up the road when I was growing up.

But mima? Hmm … a trick has been missed. Look at the Oldenburg that they planted outside the Euroarchitect-designed purpose-built shed that houses the gallery. On his website the artist claims to have been inspired by Middlesbrough’s riverside location and its links to Captain Cook, Gulliver’s Travels, a short story by Poe about a sailor caught in a maelstrom, the local steel industry and much other guff besides.

There’s a problem with this. The local elements which would really anchor the piece in the history of Middlesbrough – the sea, Cook and the steel industry – are not within staggering distance of the gallery.**** They’re disconnected from it. Or rather the gallery is disconnected from them. It’s in the wrong place.

Look at the picture of Bottle of Notes. It’s set in a nondescript park beside a sub-Stirling lump of 80s Post-Modernism. Look the other way and you have the (magnificent) 19th C Town Hall dwarfed by some beige 70s garbage. I won’t trouble your eyes with the gallery, the building holds no interest.***** Where’s the river? Where’s the steel? Where’s the chemicals? Where’s Middlebrough?******

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Victorian town hall from ‘mima’

Inside the gallery interesting things are happening. There’s a smattering of good modern art (a lot of it prints and drawings, which is telling), a temporary exhibition by a politically radical British feminist artist (interesting but not exactly uplifting on a cold November day) and a nationally important jewellery collection (sure it’s good but not my bag).

The main exhibition, Localism, is the interesting part. Its prospectus is worth quoting in full,

‘Localism’ is an ambitious project telling the story of art in Middlesbrough from its beginnings in 1829 to now. It takes a radical approach to exhibition making, inviting the public to help write the narrative with workshops that grow the show, adding to it as we go, thus creating an encyclopaedic family tree of creativity on Teesside.
It’s also more than just an exhibition as we join up people and places across the region to celebrate and debate our own cultural history and its impact on the wider world. Topics include Christopher Dresser and the Linthorpe Pottery, bridge building, the remarkable Boosbeck Industries in the 1930s and the existence of mima itself. In a thoroughly internationalised world, Localism restates the vitally important role of the local in the development of art and society.

Basically they’ve realised that the people of Middlesbrough are not especially fussed about radical feminist politics, nationally important jewellery collections or much modern art. I’m sure that quite a few people in Middlesbrough (and environs) are, just not the people of Middlesbrough. Looking at what the people of Middlesbrough ask to be displayed in the gallery through Localism they’re concerned with jobs and industry, football, crafts, education and the countryside, i.e. the things that they love about their city and of which they are proud. And they’re slowly repurposing the gallery as a museum about their town’s history, told through documents, ephemera and artworks. And it works. Localism is a perfect exhibition for the outsider to Middlesbrough. It contextualises the town. It tells you why you should visit the place and why the closure of the steelworks, while making cold economic sense, is a tragedy. The dismal walk from station to gallery past the usual signs of economic decline does not.

Walking the other way from the station, away from the town and towards the river is a bit dismal too. There are many maltreated buildings (like the Captain Cook above) which are splendid things but have no investment. They remind you that this was once one of the wealthiest towns in England and indeed the world.

 

Which one (or collection of several) of these solid Victorian buildings could have been the home for a combined museum of Middlesbrough and modern art? Buildings that would have connected the museum directly to the river, to the sea, to the world? I walked past half a dozen candidates at least on my way to the riverside. And once you’re there you arrive at a view of one of the great kinetic sculptures of the nineteenth century in a setting to make an aesthete’s heart skip.

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Transporter Bridge. The greatest sculpture in Middlesborough

Who needs Oldenburg? You can chuck that bottle in the sea and ask for your money back.

*At the University of Teesside, for their conference on sport and urban history. I talked about a French sportsman, Frantz Reichel, and the history of his statue in Paris. You can find the paper (or the bare bones of it) here.

** note The Artful Way They’ve Avoided Capital Letters? the Initials Stand For middlesbrough institute of modern art. The avoidance of capital letters stands for Nothing.

*** When people attack previous governments’ aspirations to get a greater percentage of young people into university-level education it’s places like Teesside that they’re thinking of as being a ‘waste of money’. In fact by bringing universities closer to the homes of more and more people you  make education more affordable for those from lower-income backgrounds, even if they have to pay for the course itself. Universities like these act as drivers of the local economy and points of aspiration for post-industrial communities in a function that ‘traditional’ university towns’ communities take for granted.

**** Although Cook is a bit of a stretch, the town didn’t exist when he was around and he’s more connected with Stockton-on-Tees upriver.

***** Oh, go on then – here’s a really long staircase with a fire extinguisher at the bottom. Worth it.

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****** Where’s the people too?! It was lunchtime on a Saturday.

Voluntary work for the Poppy Appeal

November 4, 2015

Once a year (or twice if I’m feeling very energetic and can get the time off work) I volunteer to collect donations on behalf of the Poppy Appeal.* It’s something that I welcome doing as a small act of remembering a good friend (now passed away) who once organised the poppy collectors of Chelsea, and also as a way of making my own small contribution to the very necessary work of the British Legion beyond shoving a note in a tin. As something to do I’d recommend it unequivocally for the pleasure of giving time to a good cause at the temporary expense of a pair of shot knees. I’d also recommend it for giving a distinctive view of London going about its business. My beat is usually Sloane Square, one of the wealthiest parts of town and therefore not exactly the toughest gig on the poppy collecting circuit. Outside the tube or outside Peter Jones are the top spots but decent trade can be found down by the Saatchi or along the King’s Road if someone’s already bagged those.

Theoretically the poppy collector is the opposite of Baudelaire’s flâneur. The flâneur moves through the city, an anonymous observer in the crowd. The poppy seller on the other hand is usually rooted to a pitch and has to lug a collecting tin in one hand and a poppy box suspended off the shoulders. This box is a temperamental and cumbersome beast to the early-career collector, apt to tangles, spills and rain damage. And it makes you feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb.

However, the box, like any uniform, gives a certain amount of anonymity to its wearer. People tend to see the box and not the person, and poppy collectors are so ubiquitous from the end of October that they rapidly become part of the street furniture. So yes, I welcome my once a year standing in Sloane Square as an opportunity to observe, to scrutinise, to wallow in a quarter of the city that I rarely visit on any other occasion. It’s rather fun.

Of course the first to be observed are the poppy punters or poppy shunners. I like to feign indifference to the public until it’s apparent that someone is coming to buy a poppy. I’m not a hunter after donations, fixing people with a guilt-inducing beady eye to induce them to cough up some change. I also spurn naming a figure when asked how much they should give (against advice from my poppy hierarch) as it seems vulgar to begin some kind of morally tinged haggle. I know people often are unsure how much they should donate and in asking me are seeking approval for whatever amount they’ve already got in their palm. My advice is always that one should give what one can afford.

But while I feign disengagement with the public at large really I’m thoroughly scrutacious. Very few people don’t see the poppy collector at all and people’s reactions once they have seen you are to an extent categorisable. There are foreigners who have no idea what you’re doing and are not interested. There are a lot of these in Sloane Square, a magnet for tourists and with a significant residential population of non-British origin. There is the occasional foreigner, usually a tourist (or actually, more often a tourist child) who is curious and will ask you in great depth about the poppy and what it is. I like these people, it’s good to chat with them and talk about British culture and history.

So what of the British? You have people who already have a poppy but whose hand goes to where their poppy is just to check that it’s there and can be seen. Sometimes it’s missing (they do fall off if not secured properly with a pin (I put mine through the petal – it looks ugly but it’s very effective)) and you can see them considering how annoying it is to have to get another one. But they usually do. Or their poppy is on their other coat, the one they left at home, and they’re thinking about whether they should get another one for this coat when they could just transfer the one from the other coat when they get home. But they usually buy another one too. Good souls.

Of course there are people who don’t donate out of conviction. Arrogantly they look at you sometimes (I don’t like that) but more often obviously not wishing to be judged. I wouldn’t judge them – there are cogent arguments (I don’t subscribe to them) as to why the poppy appeal should be rejected by pacifists, or by those who feel coerced into a national act of mourning and remembrance with which they have no sympathy. Freedom of opinion is a good thing.

But the majority of British people that I see (and I would include people of the ‘British World’ in that) either have a poppy already or when they see you are already putting their hand in their pocket or their purse to find a donation. The most heart-warming of donators are the ones who already have a poppy but who give you a donation anyway. Often these people are (ex-) service personnel or people closely related to them. They’ll often ask me if I’m in the armed forces myself (I think they usually know that I’m not! I don’t quite have a military bearing) and will chat about their motivation for giving (I like that too).

So for a thing to do I would heartily recommend getting out on the streets for the Poppy Appeal, if I’ve sold you on it there’ll be an organising committee near you I’m sure.

Sloane Square - my patch for the morning

Sloane Square – my patch for the morning

If the charitable angle isn’t enough for you then let me add another motivation, an aesthetic one. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to visit one or two of the big galleries in London solely to look at one painting at a time. One of the frustrations in going abroad to look at art is gallery fatigue.** Canvas blindness is another way of putting it. You get it in blockbusters here too so every now and then I try and do my art viewing in smaller chunks of focussed time.

Standing in the street for a few hours forces you to look at the cityscape in the same way as you would study a great painting. I’ve looked at the fixtures of Sloane Square (the theatre, the war memorial, the buildings) until they’ve become old friends visited once a year. Sometimes they change but essentially they remain the same. Then there are the medium variable things that shift but keep a rhythm – the sky, buses and traffic gridlock – unfolding in predictable but erratic ways over the course of a morning. And then there are the variable variable things – the people. Over time you observe a whole society in operation, from the people with the wealth*** down through those who service them. Wealthy people (hedge fund managers, art collectors, trophy wives and husbands, gilded offspring, mistresses, little kids dressed like Ralphy models, minor royalty, oligarchs) wealth professionals (lawyers, financial advisers, art buyers), lifestyle facilitators (designers, restauranteurs, personal trainers), doers (builders, windowcleaners, personal shoppers, delivery men), providers (shopworkers, newsagents, guides, drivers) and askers (Big Issue salespeople, charity collectors, beggars).

Of the cavalcade of local humanity that passes before one’s eyes in Chelsea the one group that doesn’t fit into this scheme are the Chelsea Pensioners. They’ve earned their independence through serving the nation, rich and poor. That’s the motivation.

* British people (forgivably) assume that this time of the year is as well known outside the UK as it is within. Having had a regular group of Belgians in November for the last few years I now realise that this isn’t the case, even among people from those nations who were directly affected by the First World War.

So for those who have no idea what the Poppy Appeal is, it is a charity that collects money from the public in return for distinctive decorative poppies and other paraphernalia (badges, wristbands, stickers etc). It began as a way of raising money for the casualties of World War One and rapidly developed into a national tradition (with some dissenting voices) for remembering the sacrifice of those who have served in conflicts around the world. The money raised now goes towards supporting supporting ex-servicemen and women and their families in manifold ways.

** Last suffered in the Künsthistorische Museum in Vienna where there are TOO MANY BREUGHELS. I’ll probably never go back and aggh!! Ugh, want to see those Breughels properly.

*** Contrary to radical perception the 1% and their circle are not a faceless, hidden away group. They’re fascinating and they’re out there. The display of expensive lifestyle is a joy, a technicolour cavalcade of skin, teeth, hair, clothes and accessories. Although occasionally it’s ostentatiously monochrome.

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.

On Somerset House

August 25, 2015

In my London lifetime Somerset House has been transformed from a large office block with a beautiful gallery* nestled within to a cultural complex of public areas, gallery spaces, university, pop up cinema, music venue with a variety of shops, restaurants and cafés to suit most pockets.** This process, being gradual, has largely been unheralded compared to the flashier developments on the South Bank, at Tate or at Kings Cross. The purpose of this blog is to celebrate Somerset House and to draw attention to two exhibitions in particular that merit a visit before they close.

One the joys of the building is its nooks and crannies. I’ve never made it to any of the site specific shows that from time to time take people through the building and use its corridors and chambers as a production backdrop and take you through the belly of the beast. But if you want a structured visit to the site (bowels included) you can join one of the regular tours that are run by Blue Badge Guides each Tuesday. Highly recommended.

If you prefer to browse the site in your own time Somerset House offers a palimpsest of architectural styles, textures in stone and brick, and odd perspectives.

Gateway to the new wing

Gateway to the New Wing

The newest of these (for me at least) is the New Wing***, entered from the courtyard through a suitably forbidding gate given that it once housed the offices of the Inland Revenue. Nowadays it has a couple of restaurants (I shall try them soon I hope) and exhibition space. But what I liked about its being open to the public are the quirky views you get of familiar buildings.

Somerset House

Between blocks, Chambers to the left and Pennethorne to the right

Look to the left as you pass through the gate and you get a deliciously symmetric view of terracing closed off by a classical gateway. In the nineteenth century the older block would house Naval clerks and administrators dealing with Sick and Hurt, Navy Pay and Victualling. To the right the newer building housed the beancounters of the Revenue. Each of them staring across a terrain of slates and chimneys covering yet more warrens of offices and stores below ground. The Naval connection especially is a reminder of how something that was once fundamental to London life, the sea and the people who worked on it, is somehow now marginal.

Bricks and stone

Bricks and stone

Look to the right and you have a little play of textures, of nineteenth century stone and brick sandwiching a twentieth century interloper. Down the alley between red and yellow brick there’s an owl. Go through the door to the other side of the building on Lancaster Place and you see a fresh perspective of Brettenham House, one of my favourite buildings in London. Not because it’s spectacular (far from it) but just because it occupies a slither at the north end of Waterloo Bridge in a very dignified way. I especially like the neo-classical lettering above the main entrance.

IMG_3460

Brettenham House, better seen in the flesh.

If you like it as much as I do you can take a coffee on the terrace and watch the buses pass by in front of it. The terrace on the river side of Somerset House is rather disappointing as a viewpoint owing the plane trees blocking the way. Lancaster Place terrace offers the opportunity to lounge around while hassled commuters, harum-scarum cyclists and wide-eyed tourists tootle along in front of you.

I’d earned my coffee through having visited not one but two exhibitions beforehand. The second of these was Unseen Waterloo: The Conflict Revisited

IMG_3456

This was a peculiarly fascinating show. The photographer Sam Faulkner has 80 life-size portraits of men who re-enact the Battle of Waterloo of a variety of ranks, regiments and nationalities. This against a backcloth of the same fabric used to make British redcoats. At first I was struck by the beautiful construction of the uniforms; the sheer volume and intricacy of tailoring; the elaborate practicality of pockets and appendages; the decorations at once obscure and familiar; the cap badges and carefully delineated ranks; the equipment profuse and murderous (including an axe).

Then I saw that the diversity of paraphernalia mirrored the diversity of the people (although I saw no women, it would have been good to have had some camp followers among the militaria). All ages, including boys, from all over Europe, reflecting the fact that the battle itself two hundred years ago was fought not between Englishmen and French but between all the territories of Europe. And also that within the British Army there was a great agglomeration of men from around the Empire (as it then was), the former colonies in North America and subjects of the King in Europe as well as those of his allies. Such too would have been the case in the Royal Navy, in whose former rooms the exhibition is situated.

The exhibition is free and it is a stunner.

I came to Waterloo from the West Wing, passing by The Jam: About the Young Idea, currently occupying the Rock Nostalgia slot in the Somerset House programme. I like The Jam but do I like to spend to spend nine pounds on a trip down memory lane when I could just put a record on or watch their debut on TOTP on youtube? Not bloody likely.****

IMG_3455

I’d come from a tremendous (and free) exhibition, Out of the Chaos, by an organisation of whose existence I was completely unaware, Ben Uri. The exhibition has a dual purpose. The first is to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Ben Uri, an organisation founded to promote the work of Jewish artists living and working in London following the wave of emigration from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century.

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn't want to see that?

The Spong Dancers in the Arab Hall. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

If you have any familiarity with the history of the East End names like Israel Zangwill, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein will leap out. What I liked about the exhibition was that it weaved together artwork and documents to tell the story of the Jewish community in London through the twentieth century and into the present day. From a community of outsiders, with separate language and culture very quickly (and not without challenges and opposition of course) Jewish artists and intellectuals soon came to be central to the cultural life of the capital and by extension, the nation. In the room dealing with World War 2 exhibits on the consequences of the Holocaust underlined the evil effects of racist ideology. Britain itself took the ruthless decision to intern a large number of Jews of German origin and this is covered in documentation and artwork of camps on the Isle of Man. But there is also a small, dignified illustration by Barnett Freedman of D-Day Preparations showing a group of men being addressed in a hall in the run up to Operation Overlord that illustrates how the Jewish community was shoulder to shoulder with the rest of Britain in the battle for a democratic way of life.

My own favourite picture was Mornington Crescent by Frank Auerbach. It is intense, joyful and London in sticky bright abstraction.

Here is the lesson.

Here is the lesson.

The exhibition’s second purpose is to campaign. Ben Uri is now looking for a permanent home for its collection which grows as the organisation continues to sponsor contemporary artists. You can read about the campaign here at their blog. I really want them to succeed and plant a museum in a space in the centre of the city that will act as a beacon of tolerance in these often intolerant times.

The basement where the exhibition takes place is the only downside to an extraordinary must-see show. These works need room to breathe. However, it does afford a glimpse of another immigrant success story, whose leadership saw this country through the trials of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought to mind in Waterloo above and in the history of the Navy Board, for whom Somerset House was built.

George III - wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

George III – wartime leader; patron of the arts; sion of a successful immigrant family.

* The Courtauld – also an art college. They have an excellent exhibition on at the moment concerned with unfinished art. The thesis of the exhibition didn’t really interest me very much (concerning how the concept of ‘finish’ has changed since the Renaissance) but as usual with the Courtauld the quality of the work is worth the fee alone whatever the intellectual underpinning of the show. Standouts were Manet and Degas but I’m sure you’ll have your own favourites if you visit.

** There are few better places in London to sit and contemplate the world than the courtyard of Somerset House. With a stumpy from Fernandez and Wells to hand and the noise of the Strand left behind one can sit and read in an unusually peaceful al fresco setting.

*** The New Wing actually dates to the 1850s, which made it new compared to the rest of Somerset House, which is of the 18th Century.

**** Especially with the threat of text by Gary Crowley lurking in the shadows.

On the less visited things of Paris

June 22, 2015

No, it's not la Sainte Chappelle

No, it’s not la Sainte Chappelle

Having been in Paris for a week, for pleasure with a tiny bit of research thrown in (mostly involving tracking down a statue of a feller that I want to write about (I’ll probably do something about him in a future post too when I’ve actually done some of the work)), this post is to talk about places in and around Paris that merit more attention from the curious tourist. Leave the Tour Eiffel to the bus parties and the pickpockets; the Champs to the consumers and the cars; the Sacre Coeur (the most chillingly sterile blot on any landscape) to the Amelieites.

My mission on this trip was to go to places to which I’d never been before – places that might appear in guide books but to which very few people actually go. Places that offer an alternative view of Paris, open up new ideas and resonances, or in the case of the Fondation are brand new. This was also the case with bars and restaurants, and if you want to ask for recommendations (or places to avoid) consult this GoogleMap and get in touch. This post is about things to do rather than things to eat and drink.

We did go to one regular, the Musée D’Orsay, but then it was worth breaking the rules to see this cat …

Bonnard cat

Bonnard cat. Psychologically accurate if anatomically eccentric.

I’ve limited it to five places, we visited others but these are the ones that stood out on the trip and that I think may be readily appreciated by a wide range of thinking people.

1. Fondation Louis Vuitton

FLV by FG

FLV by FG

Ok, so let’s start with the big beast. It’s not exactly obscure, having been the subject of a furious amount of media promotion since it opened. But it is quite new so many people will not have been and may be open to some tips about visiting.

The current exhibition, Les clefs d’un passion, was so good that I actually went to the Fondation twice in the week – once on my own and then once again with family. It’s the perfect exhibition in that it combines what amounts to a greatest hits of the twentieth century (Monet Water Lilies, two of them side by side, 7 or 8 Mondrians that give an overview of his career, first class Picassos, Munch Scream, Kandinsky and on and on) with a smattering of works of equally high quality from less well known artists. With our Finnish family connections the best of these was a sequence of four Lake Keitele canvases by Gallen-Kallela displayed along one wall, side by side. Extraordinary and worth missing the D’Orsay, Beaubourg or any other gallery in Paris to go and see if you’re only there for a weekend.

And how could I forget toe toon Delaunay’s colossal canvas of the Cardiff rugby team! The painting I’ve only ever seen in reproduction before but which encapsulates the ideas behind my writing on the relationship between art, modernity and sport in Britain and France.

The only things in there I wouldn’t have wanted to own were the Picabias. Execrable late period kitsch garbage. Oh well, easily forgotten. I can’t recommend the exhibition enough. There’s a also an exhibition of contemporary art that I wandered past but wasn’t engaged by … apart from Gilbert and George.*

The building itself is also a work of art (and don’t they keep banging on about it) by Frank Gehry. I’d never been to a Gehry building before and was a bit sceptical about his fantastical shapes – they have a certain ‘look at me! Look At Me!! LOOK AT ME!!!’ quality to them when seen on a page that is rather off-putting. This one being stuck in the wastes of the Bois de Boulogne means that it doesn’t really have anything to clash with around it and so works as a sculptural form in a open space. Inside the building is functional, airy and rather delightful – the Olaf Eliasson works really well with Gehry’s use of water.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton

The galleries too are perfect for viewing the art and as the price to get in is fairly steep it wasn’t too rammed on either of the occasions that I went; it wasn’t necessary to queue to get a ticket if you hadn’t paid in advance.

The Museum is a bit of a schlep if you’re going to walk it through the park but there is a shuttle bus for €1 from Nation that looks well worth using. I schlepped because that’s what I do. Entry also includes a visit to the Jardin d’Acclimation, which I didn’t take advantage of but has several eateries if you don’t fancy the pretentious looking café in the Fondation.

I’m not sure if it’d be worth making a detour for if they didn’t have such a world class exhib going on but while it is there it’s worth travelling to Paris just to see it.

2. Meaux

Bishop's gaff, Meaux

Bishop’s gaff, Meaux

Meaux was a serendipitous error. We had been planning to go to Champagne but a combination of holiday laziness, a byzantine automatic ticket machine (‘Do you have a war veterans’ discount?’) and extortionate prices for an off-the-cuff TGV ticket meant that we scoured the Gare de L’Est destinations board for other fare. Meaux (at a bargain €40 return for a party of three) seemed ideal for our purposes.

Twenty minutes later we’d left the tourists behind and were in a mid-sized provincial French town with a beautiful mediaeval core. Gothic Cathedral, Bishops Palace, art museum, local museum, smattering of shops and restaurants and all a 5 minute walk from the station. The architecture of the Cathedral and its complex is stunning, and in the summer they have outdoor concerts and theatre in the evening. But there’s more to Meaux than that.

Both museums being shut the guy at the Tourist Office told us to head to the fromagerie to see how Brie is made. We’d hit the motherlode! We’d been planning on a champagne tour but instead we had a cheese feast. Forty minutes tootle round followed by a dégustation of Brie de Meaux (mild) and Brie de Melun (spicy), washed down with some local cider (not authentic but it was free so I wasn’t complaining).

Don't take a wrong turn

Don’t take a wrong turn

Don’t let the sign put you off … it was charming. Outside the fromagerie there’s a curious cemetery with many WW1 graves from all sides of the conflict – British, Belgian, French, German, Moslem, Jewish, Christian. A very moving (and unexpected) thing until we remembered that the Battle of the Marne finished right here in Meaux (they have a museum about that but that was shut too). So Meaux – perfect for a day out of relaxation, thoughtfulness and face-stuffing and I didn’t speak English the whole time I was there.**

3. Longchamps

Longchamps

Longchamps

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in north London is that there isn’t a racecourse that doesn’t take you half a day to get to. I’ve been to Folkestone, Kempton, Sandown, Newmarket and Lingfield, they all involve multiple changes of train or a car journey. And who wants to drive to the races? In Paris there are two courses in the same park!! That’s a superior civilisation. Go to the Bois, we did Auteuil and Longchamps in three days. Of the two Longchamps was my favourite.

The place is set up for the Arc. As you can see from the photo there are colossal, elegant stands geared up for five figure crowds but to go there mid-week lunchtime … well, that’s a bigger treat for the holidaymaker. Because at that time you only see people who are there for the racing – either the wealthy owners, pros (jockeys, trainers, members of the press) and neer-do-wells who know that slinking off to the races when everyone else is working is some form of heaven.

It’s five euros in and for that you get eight races of very good quality. You can walk there if you’re feeling energetic or get the bus with your fellow punters from Porte Maillot. Beer is warm and out of a can but you really shouldn’t be here for the booze (in fact we should have taken our own, everyone else seemed to) … you’re here for character and atmosphere. The atmosphere is smells … horsey smells and grass, faces in the almost exclusively French crowd of ravaged old gamblers, sharp-looking young gamblers, industrially renovated-ageing wealthy old bags and roués, with the odd middle-aged couple having a picnic lunch. Trackside the sound of six horses striving, bloodbursting and winninglosing. The ritual round of newspaper, paddock, Tote (no on course bookies in Paris, alas), track and win/lose is hypnotic until you’ve won enough or you’ve had enough losses.

And all the time Degas in mind.***

Auteuil races ... note the Tour Eiffel in the background - the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

Auteuil races … note the Tour Eiffel in the background – the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

4. The Commando Museum

Musée Nissim Camondo

Musée Nissim Camondo

Well, not really, that’s in Portsmouth … this is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Just off Parc Monceau in a very expensive part of Paris and barely a soul in there when I visited. For Downton fans there’s plenty of kitchen-scullery stuff to gawp at. The art is not really to my taste (although they do have a lot of prints of Chardin’s works) but again this place is about atmosphere and backstory. The atmosphere of a perfectly preserved mansion straight out of A la Recherche. And the backstory of a Jewish family raised to the cream of Parisian society by hard work and making the right connections laced with much subsequent tragedy that it’s best left for the individual to come to in their own time.

5. Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

I had a ticket to see Jean-Bernard Pommier for my final evening in Paris but he cancelled. No in fact he didn’t cancel he postponed the concert by two days, which is a curious thing to do.**** But undeterred I hunted out another concert going on that evening at M de la RF, which came in at 40 euros less expensive.

First, the building is a treat. Is this foyer out of a Eurothriller from the late 60s? Possibly starring David Hemmings and Romy Schneider … it’s a stunner anyway and not a bad place to while away the time waiting for the doors to open. It would have been substantially improved by having a bar mind but you can’t have everything.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

The auditorium perfect and then on with the show. It’s nice to know that some things transcend cultures (i.e. inappropriately timed coughing fits and fidgety kids) but this was a very French evening despite the first work being a string quartet by George Onslow. I’d assumed he must be some contemporary Brit or Yank but no, he’s from the Romantic period (‘the French Beethoven’) the son of an exiled English aristo and an Auvergnat inheritrix who grew up in France and despite being renowned in his own life-time has now fallen into obscurity.

The Quatuor Danel are trying to rescue him from musical oblivion. I sympathise with their aims but fear that he’s too anodyne compared to contemporaries Schubert and Beethoven. Sometimes there’s a reason people stay out of fashion. Just ask Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The real meat came afterwards with a Fauré piano quintet that was hot and dreamy in a way that made my head pound, my soul sing joy and my heart ache.

And who doesn’t want that? All of these places can deliver it.

* I once did a guided tour of Spitalfields that coincided with the G&G retrospective at Tate Modern. Outside their former house I gave a 5 to 10 minute take on their origins, career and current position in the market to a group of largely disinterested teenagers and one grinning group leader. Grinning because unknown to me Gilbert and George had been posing side by side behind me throughout pretty much the whole talk. When I turned to go to the next stop they silently turned round too and strolled off. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

** Best of all was a motor-mouthed sports shop salesman in Star Momo Sport, a charming and determined individual who had covered over all the ‘Inter Sport’ logos with a ‘Momo’ label on his Marseille shirts because he didn’t wish to give publicity to a rival. Alan Sugar would approve.

*** That’s ‘Duh-ga’, not ‘Day-gah’. Major irritant.

**** In his publicity he’s claimed to be the most renowned French pianist outside of France. I’d like to know what François-Frédéric Guy, Pascal Rogé, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne Queffelec, Alexandre Tharaud (I could go on) think about that. Or if he’s actually been out of France to ask anyone.


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