Archive for the ‘Guiding’ Category

Francis West at Megan Piper

September 18, 2016

Following on from a great evening at Vigo I was fortunate enough to be invited to another art show just around the corner from the library in Jermyn Street. Within Harris Lindsay Works of Art lies the Megan Piper Gallery and it was Megan herself who introduced me to the work of Francis West, an artist recently passed away whose work deserves wider renown.

West grew up in Scotland before coming to London to study at Chelsea College of Art. The exhibition is concerned with showing his late works which I could broadly divide into two broad categories – day and night. Or those largely grounded on black and those whose blue speaks of the ocean near where West stayed when visiting France.


One of West’s sea/dreamscapes

Once you know the connection to Menton and the South of France then all sorts of reference points spring to mind (Picasso, Dufy, Matisse, Mirò … ) but as we were discussing while walking from painting to painting this business of referencing can be insidious. Certain elements or motifs of a style may be reminiscent of other artists but if the work is strong (and in West’s case I believe it is very strong) one overcomes the references to concentrate on the artist’s individuality, the elements of the painting that convey their personality, their way of seeing the world. And so once I’d gabbled about what the canvases reminded me of I tried to slow my mind down and let the art speak for itself.

Because these are complicated pictures. This is not minimalist art. There is a proliferation of life depicted in the paintings. People, dancers, lovers, bathers, gamblers, drinkers. Creatures, birds (lots of birds, fantastically depicted), creepy crawlies and in the illustration above a wonderful crab (I was told that West’s wife is a Cancerian) holding a note with ‘W’ inscribed up on it. Each painting is a richly complicated composition that your eye can pore over and enjoy because as much as the life teems thickly across the surface so does the colour grab you and make you like life. Which is what I want from art.

It’s worth pushing the button on the door and getting inside. I’m told that during Frieze week that Piper, like a cuckoo, will take over the whole of Harris Lindsay’s nest and bring West’s work to the shop window.


In passing Megan told me about another project she works on that was equally interesting called The LineTo my shame I’d never heard of it but it concerns a series of outdoor works by leading contemporary artists strung along a walking route from the Olympic Park to the Greenwich Peninsula. It seems a boon for guides and I can’t wait to visit.



September 4, 2016

I am not a big fan of getting my hair cut and since my son left school I’ve been scratching around for somewhere to go since I no longer have the occasion to go to J. Moriyama‘s neck of the woods on a regular basis.

Briggs, in a little alley between Jermyn Street and St. James’s Square, is a place I have been going past on a regular basis for several years now as it’s on my favourite route to the library from Piccadilly Circus. It’s a little booth of a place tucked away and I’d often see its barber chopping hair or watching the world go by if he was between customers.

With friends I would speculate as to whether it really was a barbers given its unpromising, indeed improbable, location or whether it was rather some kind of front. A front for a shadowy department of M15 perhaps where those in the service would tap their nose before being ushered through to a shabby beige Le Carré interior that had somehow survived spending reviews, smoking bans and digitisation.

Well, this week I decided to take the plunge and find out for myself. The truth turned out to be no less romantic and a whole lot more interesting. Briggs in fact is run by Fylaktis Philippou, a Cypriot of advanced years (92 of them) who came to London in 1949 as one of the first 3,000 or so Cypriots whose community has now expanded to over 300,000. Mr Philippou (or Phil to his regulars I’m informed, I don’t think I yet qualify) hasn’t done a bad job of helping out on that score as he told me that he has four great-grandchildren (as well as the intervening descendants of course), all growing up in London.

Briggs was the owner of the shop when Mr Philippou came to London and the shop has been on its present site since 1959. To the inexpert eye (i.e. mine) it looks that it has largely been untouched since then, other than the addition of various dignitaries and family that adorn the walls. It really is a historic interior in the right sense of the word in that it is both a record of a certain era but also an organic space that remains useful for the purpose for which it was created. People often describe such a space as being like a film set but of course it’s not. It’s lived in, inhabited by real people.

The technology is historic too. Rather than electric clippers there’s some hand powered shears for your short back and sides, and a bit of scissor work to straighten up your thatch. Mr Philippou doesn’t keep you hanging around so if you choose to visit (and I urge you to) make the most of the ten minutes or so of conversation that you’ll have in return for your twenty quid. There are few people of my acquaintance who have such a long experience of the changing shape of London in the twentieth century at first hand.

It was a good lesson in the art of guiding in that if you want to find out about somewhere you can do all the research in the world but nothing beats walking into a place and asking somebody about it. I’ll be back for more.

On two excellent exhibitions

September 6, 2015

A brief post after yet more Waterloo action this week following the photography at Somerset House I mentioned before. With an hour to spare after finishing in the library I thought I’d catch the Joseph Cornell at the Royal Academy before it closes in a couple of weeks time. My wife not wanting to see it for some reason (and she’s the one with the membership card!) it was an opportune moment to see it while she was out of the country.

Cornell first caught my attention when reading Phaidon’s book on Surrealism while I was training to be a guide, part of which involved getting under the skin of a selection of works in Tate Modern. I’d never heard of him but as I remember (and memory is fickle isn’t it? I’ve just been reading a thesis using oral history sources where that point was brought home to me once more) there was an illustration of one of his pharmacy cabinets where I thought, ‘That’s Damien Hirst’. And of course Cornell was there first, Hirst as is his wont appropriated his idea and turned it to a more sinister end.

After that I forgot about Cornell. A brief search didn’t turn up anywhere that I could see more of his work in the flesh rather than on the page and he went to the back of my head as ‘the cabinet guy’ who I could reference when doing a bit of one-upmanship about the origins of vitrines, taxonomies, stuff of that sort (which a lot of contemporary art seems to ‘play’ with).

So to see not just an individual work but 5 or 6 rooms of his pieces was too good an opportunity to turn down given that I’m unlikely to go to the States any time soon (which reminds me of how grateful I am to the clout that London’s museums and galleries have in being able to assemble agglomerations of the best of what the rest of the world has to offer and put it in one building for a three month stretch). And he’s unlikely to make a return journey for a generation.

One reason for this may be that the works are so delicate. Collages and clippings of paper, boxes and cases of fragile intricacy that make you wonder at the imagination of a man who built fabulous stories that traverse the world without leaving his home state. All of it is superbly impractical, of an illusory reality. Objects allude to games with no rules, journeys without destination, biographies without substance. Often you come across something that transports you to your own past. Such as this parrot.

Cornell parrot

Cornell parrot

I once had a parrot. Go there and see what you once possessed or imagined amid the marché de puces of Cornell’s objects.

But after that descend the stairs (or take the lift) to Daniel Maclise’s cartoon for the fresco of the Battle of Waterloo that was made in preparation for a site in the Palace of Westminster. You can see the finished article on a tour of Parliament, opposite a similar piece describing the Battle of Trafalgar. But of course this is the bicentenary of Wellington’s and Blücher’s great victory so London is full of Wellingtonia for a year, or at least even more that it is normally. Prior to this exhibition I knew nothing of Maclise, his cartoon or the fresco. Walking in public buildings such as the PoW it’s easy to be blind to the individual artworks, often monumental, that contribute to the grandeur of the whole. This exhibition is welcome in that it forces you to focus on just one of those pieces and reflect on what it is saying.

For myself I was surprised at the lack of triumphalism in the work. This is no celebration of a great victory won, or at least it’s not a revelling in the event. True, Wellington and Blücher form the central figures with a band trumpeting their meeting to one side. But this picture portraying a moment of world history from fifty years ago would surely have come across to contemporaries as a portrait of something far closer to their own lives.

There is national pride in the painting but more strongly resonant is a sense of pity for the fallen. Not maudlin pity but that classical pity and stoic acceptance that the price of victory is paid in the blood of the common man. Each fallen French soldier resembled a portrait of Napoleon in my mind, as if to comment on the fact that so much of the slaughter was a consequence of the actions of one man. The lack of blood only adds to the austere nature of the sorrow. It was drafted only a few years after the end of the Crimean War. Isn’t it a portrait of that futile conflict?

Looking at the cartoon I was reminded of seeing captured French eagles at an exhibition of Napoleonic prints that was on at the British Museum over the summer. The eagles (there were two of them) feature in Maclise’s cartoon and are in the collection of Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner (the seat of the Dukes to this day and open to the public – recommended). I’ve been to Apsley House many times but in amongst the brilliant collection I never noticed the eagles. In a sea of pencil and ink in the drawings gallery of the BM they stood out as physical objects in the world and formed a powerful link with the events of that day in Belgium.

I was reminded of this history coming alive when looking at the small collection of prints by French artists alongside the cartoon at the RA. One, by C. de Last. shows the Affaire d’Astorga en Gallice in which a French soldier, while holding a captured English soldier aloft, is stopped in his tracks by a bullet amidst hand to hand fighting. The pose of two struggling men, through accident or design I don’t know, exactly replicates the pose of a struggling Lapith and Centaur to be found in the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum. And it reminded me of how little has changed in three millennia of warfare even to the present day. It should be the historian’s job, and the artist of war, to remind us that nothing that we see nowadays is uniquely horrific; neither is it insurmountable. Hirst and his chums the Chapmans play at dealing with death. Maclise treats it with respect.

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.


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


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.****


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 biography

August 15, 2015

Is it possible to write in August? When England make the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever seen in an Ashes series? When the football season starts almost before it seemed to stop? When there is so much thing to do in London that you can’t walk across the street without stumbling into another festival?

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Well, sometimes you have to. In August I had a deadline to complete a chapter for an edited collection on South African cricket.* My chapter discusses the career of Percy Sherwell, the first player to captain South Africa on a tour of England in 1907 and the first player to captain South Africa to a win at home against a touring MCC side a few years earlier.** My idea was to examine Sherwell, a largely forgotten figure nowadays, as a representative of the British South African community and the way in which his career as a businessman and sportsman was exemplary of the hyphenated existence of Anglo-South Africans. And that’s what it did.

All I was interested in as a historian was Sherwell as symbol and I assembled my material and wrote the piece thinking I’d done a decent enough job from that point of view. It took one of my fellow authors to point out to me what a dunce I’d been (more politely than that it has to be said) in writing the piece for myself and not for the reader. The book after all is a book about South African history but it is also about cricket history. Any potential reader is likely to be interested in Sherwell as a man in the world as well as a symbol. They would want colour – what kind of a man was he? What other achievements did he have aside from the bare bones of his cricketing career?

So I redrafted the piece to add in the biographical elements and rather enjoyed it. Academic writing often forces you to jettison material that isn’t strictly relevant to the thesis you’re proposing, which means that a lot of interesting stuff gets left on the cutting room floor in the pursuit of intellectual rigour. And I enjoyed writing the piece much more for being reminded that sometimes a reader likes to be entertained.***

It wasn’t the first time I’d written a biography; last year I was asked to write a handful of entries for the Dictionary of Caribbean and Latin American Biography. Trying to encapsulate the achievements of Sir Vivian Richards on and off the pitch in less than a thousand words was something of a challenge (a vastly enjoyable one!) and not really what I would count as a proper biography of such a significant political and sporting figure. But having written those pieces and with Sherwell in my mind I started seeing biographies everywhere, especially in documentaries.

In Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room, Roddy Cutts (a bland post-War Tory MP) interjects into a conversation about family members who have died in service,

I don’t like hearing about death or people dying in the least. It upsets me even if I don’t know them – some film star you’ve hardly seen or foreign statesman or scientist you’ve only read about in the paper. It thoroughly depresses me … Let’s change the subject.****

A modern day Cutts would be very uncomfortable in our current times when it seems that every other documentary is about the early death of a musician. Kurt: Montage of Heck, Heaven Adores You and Amy are the standouts of recent years but I’m sure there are more. The common theme of these films is that their subjects had troubled personal lives and self-inflicted early deaths. I haven’t seen any of them.

Of the three the one that I was most tempted to see was the Elliott Smith. I first started listening to him when I had no idea who he was, what his life was like or even that he’d appeared at the Oscars due to his having written a song that was included in Good Will Hunting (a film I’ve never seen).***** As I bought more of his albums I learnt more about him but was only marginally interested in the factual tragedy – I was hungry for his artistic output. Tempted as I was to watch the biopic (I’m not sure if it’s on general release or has been on general release in the UK, I only came across it in an article in Le Monde) I didn’t seek it out. Why?

For one thing, the kind of performance footage that a documentary can assemble, by contrast to the pre-YouTube era when you might be excited at seeing an alternative or live version of a song you’d only heard of in print, is there now at the end of your fingertips on your phone if you want it. It’s in your pocket and you don’t need an editor to slide it in between a talking head or muffle it with a voiceover telling you how so and so felt when they were there.

Secondly, who are these documentaries for? Are they for people who love the music or for people who love the tragedy? I liked Winehouse’s music but I don’t believe I ever saw a second of her being interviewed or read a story about her in a newspaper. I had as little interest in her non-musical life as I do in any other troubled individual with whom I have no tangible relationship. Ditto with Cobain, a man who died when I was at sixth form and for whom, while he was alive, I had a pretty healthy contempt as a ‘voice of the generation.’ Having grown up (relatively) a little since then I realise that he didn’t ever claim to be such a figure and my teenage self was being a judgemental little prick who couldn’t tell the difference between the nonsense that the NME wrote about him and the sense that he himself wrote in his songs.

I mistrust these biographies as being produced by people who wish to condemn the sources of pressure that made lives hell for their subjects while at the same time wallowing in the same screwed up mix of exploitative brand-building and rancid tragedy-hunting that first reared its head in my adult lifetime with the death of the Princess of Wales.

Even cricket isn’t immune to such impulses. Of the men in the picture of the 1907 South Africans the most famous is probably Aubrey Faulkner, sitting at the bottom. Faulkner was a fine batsman, the finest South African batsman of his generation. His fame, however, largely lies in the manner of his suicide in 1930. David Frith, a usually reliable cricket writer, included his story in his book By His Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides.****** The thesis that cricket as a sport is uniquely given to provoking suicide seems too slender to merit more than a newspaper article. To focus an entire book on such a study seems to privilege the private tragedy of the individuals concerned above their public performances on the pitch.

So it was refreshing to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this week that didn’t pretend to any great psychological depth or hint at personal tragedy. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, produced in collaboration with the film star’s family, is frank in its presentation of the surface rather than the depths of her life. It’s the kind of honest dishonesty that seems a more adult proposition than the dishonest ‘honesty’ of the music biopics. Hepburn’s image was tightly controlled from very early on – as a ballerina, as a model, as a minor English starlet, as a major asset of the Hollywood star system and finally as a woman in control of her own career and image. The exhibition joyfully lays out how the intersecting worlds of photography, film-making, fashion and PR combine to produce a figure, ‘Audrey Hepburn’, that is as much an outstanding artistic production as any song by Kurt, Elliott or Amy.

Similarly, while I was happy to trace the movements of Sherwell around the Empire and note his performances as a cricketer I had no desire to find out if he kicked his dog, hit the bottle every night or slept with his neighbour’s wife. His interest for me as a historian lies in how he was presented as a role model of Anglo-South African manliness, and as a sports fan for how he thrillingly held his nerve to hit the winning runs in South Africa’s first win over England in 1906. As for those singers – why should I have some right to their personal sadness? I’d rather go to the extraordinary music they made and feel how they transformed their experience into a work of art that talks to me about the life around me now. Roddy Cutts had some sense.

* All going well it is due to appear in 2015/16. It will be a successor to B. Murray and G. Vahed (Eds.), Empire & Cricket: The South African Experience (UNISA: Pretoria, 2009). My own contribution to the first volume was something of an addendum to some excellent work by a range of cricket historians.

** Non-cricketers might not be aware that back in the day England tours were officially billed as tours by Marylebone Cricket Club with only the international or test matches being designated as England games.

*** All writing should of course be at least mildly interesting; aspiring to entertain even when serious.

**** Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish A Room (Arrow: London, 2005), p. 88

***** He doesn’t appear comfortable. In Wes Anderson’s Royal Tannenbaums his Needle in the Hay is used very effectively. I hear it and it sends a shiver down my spine at the intensity of the feeling that Smith communicates. The same way now as it did the first time I heard it by chance on the radio years and years ago.

****** David Frith, By HIs Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides (Stanley Paul: London, 1991). Ironically the foreword is by Peter Roebuck.

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 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



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



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.

On coachwork

May 25, 2015


Hyde Park, early evening at the beginning of the tour.

This week I was taught a very good lesson by a Dutch coach driver. Coachwork – providing a commentary on a bus tour (or panos as they’re more commonly known in the trade) – is not my favourite part of guiding. Or at least that’s what I always, rather snobbishly, say. Compared to walking tours, where you can do interesting research and put together a considered narrative through the streets, a coach tour is a repetitious bunfight with the content constantly being switched from one topic to another to suit the buildings and landmarks that one is driving past.

The route rarely varies (Westminster, a bit of Southwark/Lambeth and the City of London, occasionally Docklands and the Olympic Park – I rarely go out of town) and thus your patter tends to have a core content of royals, wars, shops and celebrities with the amount you can devote to a particular anecdote dependent on the stickiness of the traffic. Due to the constant gridlock around Knightsbridge I know far too much about Harrod’s (a place I’ve only visited once (once is enough, isn’t it?)). For example that the Shakhtar Donetsk football team were refused entry for wearing shell suits. I tell this anecdote to help me to feel warmer about the place. It doesn’t work.

So, it’s with a rather heavy heart that I prep for the coach. However, there are certain aspects of coachwork that I do enjoy, chief among them the feeling of working in a team. This week’s driver, a Dutchman, introduced himself as Rien, ‘Like the French for nothing’. ‘But you’re everything to me this evening,’ I jokingly said.

There was an element of truth lying behind the gag – the guide depends on the driver to get the coach round safely, to slow down when going past the major TVPs (Top Visual Priorities – more guiding lingo), and sometimes to calm down the rabble at the back. Similarly, the driver relies on the guide – to know the route, to give clear directions, and to entertain the clients (or at least to avoid making them positively hostile).

My prep for the coach tour (because I avoid them it means when I do do them I have to prep a lot more than I would for something that I do regularly, like a Westminster walk) was stressing me because I have two writing deadlines at the moment. The nearest one isn’t a definite deadline, it’s more of a self-imposed deadline for a chapter in a book on South African cricket. This will be volume two of a work that I’m collaborating on with a group of authors for UNISA Press. (Volume 1 is here.) And because it’s for people who have become good friends I care very much that I do a good job. Stress and tension in the house.

I think it’s quite common for academics to feel that they have too much on their plate – it was certainly a feeling I had while writing my thesis and trying to combine that with working, and that returned while teaching at Luton and trying to write papers and articles. Having more than one project on the go can feel overwhelming and in trying to do everything at once one often finds that one advances very little on any front.

What does this have to do with coachwork?

Rien was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with. While I was prattling on about the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner I hadn’t registered that Rien was in the lane to head down the Mall rather than round the back of Buckingham Palace until it was nearly too late. The Mall costs for coaches so it is to be avoided for the budget conscious group leader. I asked Rien if he could get in the right lane. ‘Yes, no problem,’he said as he gently nudged across two lanes of traffic incurring angry honking horns from angry gesticulating cabbies.

Rien was magisterial in his calm at the wheel (this wasn’t the only time that I had to give him a late nudge in the right direction), and I complimented him on it at the end of the tour. ‘I drive the bus to the end of the day and when I bring the bus home I’m happy. Why be worried along the way if you do a good job?’ Wise words. 

So now I’m thinking of my chapter as a big bus. And it’s my job to get the bus home. Why be worried if along the way I do a good job?

Looking at the photos on my phone after the job I thought how lucky I am to do coachwork. The first was of Hyde Park where I was waiting for the coach to arrive. Peace, joggers, grass and trees in the soft evening light. And the next was after being dropped off at Lambeth, the Palace of Westminster in the last glow of the sun. Coachwork isn’t so bad.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

On Luton

May 6, 2015

‘Luton, with over 200,000 inhabitants, is by far the largest town in Bedfordshire, but it is a town of very little architectural interest.’*

Such is Pevsner’s damning opening line on Luton. And I must admit that when I began as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire last October it wasn’t in anticipation of a pleasurable aesthetic experience. Yet this is what it turned out to be.

I suspected Pevsner of being unnecessarily pessimistic about Luton the second I walked past St. Mary’s church on my way to the interview for the job. I’m not much of a church hound but I do recognise excellence when I see it. I made a mental note that if I got the job and saw out my year I would try and get into the church sometime and have a good rootle around.

St Mary's, Luton

St Mary’s, Luton

Over the course of the academic year I walked past St. Mary’s in sun, rain, snow and hail, usually bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and fretting about what I was going to do with the students that day. Arriving in Luton from the gleaming terminal at St. Pancras was a dispiritingly Pevsnerian experience. The renovation of Luton station (a slunking drabness of concrete, brick and corroded metal whose single decorative feature, a Moderne-ish clock, posseses no hands) seems to be very low on Network Rail’s list of things-to-do. And the route to the University from the station either takes one through bypass hell or, even more horrifically, The Mall – an example of Arndale atrocity that even the most stubborn member of the 20th Century Society would find it difficult to defend.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

Hat press in foreground, 1930s railway station in the distance overshadowed by a hulking car park. I guess that shows you the priorities of the home of Vauxhall Motors.

But then, but then, a descent from the shopping centre to ground level (taking the stairs, the escalator (the Darren Anderton of escalators) invariably being ‘under repair’), a stroll across the road and there lay St. Mary’s lounging defiantly in its own circle of green. So the church was always a welcome sight on the way into work. Even with its bunkerish parish centre attached to the east end it stands out as a piece of civility in a thoroughly feral stretch of the urban landscape.

As does the University, but that’s for another post.

View to the East End of St Mary's

View to the East End of St Mary’s

I’d emailed the church to ask if I could take a look around since it was usually shut on my teaching day. They agreed and on the last day of term I was allowed to wander around the church on my own. It is a gem.It is an outstanding example of the parish church of a wealthy mediaeval town. Its architecture possesses both modest grandeur and quirky byways. Grandeur in the broad wooden roof and gothic arches of the crossing. Quirkiness in its side chapels and piscinas (yeah, I had to look it up too).

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V's chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

Medieval stairway reminiscent of Henry V’s chapel at the Abbey with restored memorials inlaid in the wall and a glimpse of the roof.

The memorials tell a very local story of Luton and its inhabitants that links into a national narrative stretching back to the 14th Century. Those who are interested in the Wars of the Roses (never my favourite part of giving a tour of the Tower I have to admit) will be curious about the Wenlock Memorial.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

The Wenlock Memorial. Sadly, his helmet and gauntlets were not on display.

I was struck by a memorial whose name rang a bell with work that I’ve done on the history of South Africa, that to Alexander Pigott-Wernher. I knew the name Wernher from the firm of Wernher, Beit & Co., who were big players in the South African mining industry in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My own work has looked in a small way at the relationship between the mining industry and the development of sport in South Africa in the years running up to the Great War and so I’d only read about Julius Wernher as part of the background to the man I was more interested in, Abe Bailey.**

IMG_2866 (1)

I’d assumed that Wernher, like many of the Randlords, was Jewish, so I found it curious that his son, who died on the Somme in 1916, should have a memorial in an Anglican church. In fact Wernher was brought up a Lutheran in Germany and in 1870 had fought in the German army during the Franco-Prussian War. After the war he went into business and had come to the Rand via spells in Paris and London. While his partner, Alfred Beit (who was Jewish), was a dealmaker and visionary empire builder on the Rhodesian model, Wernher was the steady numbers man who ensured that their company had the liquidity to cover Beit’s grand schemes for controlling the market first in diamonds in Kimberley and then in gold on Witwatersrand. Like many of his fellow Randlords Wernher invested his fabulous wealth in property in England, buying a mansion on Piccadilly and the country estate of Luton Hoo (now a luxury hotel) in Bedfordshire – hence the connection with St. Mary’s.

Such a career demonstrates how fluid national identity was in the era of Edwardian high imperialism. The father is a middle-class Prussian soldier when young, yet through the transformative power of capital and class his son dies fighting his father’s nation of birth as an Old Etonian officer in the Welsh Guards. In Luton, the home of the EDL, the story of the Wernhers’ connection to the town is a strong reminder of the flexibility of Englishness and its ability to be an inclusive identity rather than one that rejects newcomers.

I spent a year teaching the history of sport at Luton and one of the commonest discussions we would have as a class was about the tension between globalisation and nationalism in sport. I see the same tension cropping up in the debates about the future of the country during the election campaign, especially with the main parties under pressure from the nationalists of Scotland and UKIP. And what I want the mainstream parties to make a stronger case for is a more inclusive sense of nationality that is open to the hyphenated identities of Scottish-British, Polish-English and English-European. And in this I think Ed Miliband has shown more leadership than David Cameron in rejecting outright a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. Confident of our national identity we have nothing to fear from pooling sovereignty with other nations. I only wish he’d argue more confidently against the exclusionary politics of the SNP and emphasise more the common values that give strength to our nation both in our own eyes and that of the rest of the world.

*Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 211

** If you’re interested in the history of the development of the Rand and the extraordinary range of characters involved in the development of the mining industry I heartily recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s book on the Randlords as an introduction. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Randlords (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985)

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