Archive for the ‘Tourism’ Category

A short ramble round Leicester

March 30, 2017

Coming to a brief spell of teaching at De Montfort I thought it might be of use to the casual cultured  visitor to point out some of the less well-known elements of the town that are worthy of consideration.

I’ve largely eschewed chewing in Leicester (at least on a sit down and make yourself at home basis) and so there’s only one ‘restaurant’ review from my time there. This post will have a bit of food though, plus buildings, books, art, pubs and landscape since it’s those things that to my mind are the more obvious signs of an absence or presence of civilisation in a community.

Let’s start with …



St Martin’s (Leicester Cathedral)

Leicester is blessed with good church, although the Cathedral doesn’t really make it into the top three. Sadly most good churches are closed to casual visits so I’ve only seen the best ones from the outside. The Cathedral (which is generally open) I didn’t go into because an officious verger told me curtly that at the time I turned up there was a service on and ‘there’s no visiting.’ She didn’t seem to want to venture what time the service would end so I thought, well I can manage without it given that there’s gurt-stonking church to be had elsewhere. Such as …

St Nicholas


No, it wasn’t misty. I’d dropped my phone in beer thus turning the camera into an analogue of my own ale-soaken mind if I happened to get into the right company after a day’s teaching.

Through the mists emerges St Nicholas, a real piece of Midlands bricolage being bits of Anglo-Saxon built on through the mediaeval period and topped off with a twentieth century tower. All juxtaposed with fragments of Roman Leicester. And on the ‘wrong side’ of the ring road. If it was in London it would be a major landmark. Here it languishes feeling rather unloved. As does …

All Saints, Highcross Street


Get road-side if you want to see the Norman zig-zaggy door.

Also hard on the ring road but not if you approach it from the John Lewis end as shown in this photograph. The tower has elements of Anglo-Saxon and the rest to my untrained eye is a bizarre conglomeration of mediaeval and Victorian. It is crazy in its haphazardness but this somehow just lends it charm. It also has good tombstones.

As does …

St Mary-de-Castro


Part of the castle complex and thus difficult to get a 360 degree look from close up, Pevsner goes nuts about the interior. Alas it’s shut quite a lot, or at least on Tuesdays when I’m in town. Below the castle hill there is a lovely garden with such a beautifully textured assemblage of hedgery with all kinds of bird life teeming in it. Shame they had to stick a crappy Holiday Inn above it. This is a good place to eat a sandwich. I know, I’ve been there.


Like all good second hand bookshops Maynard & Bradley has an idiosyncratic style of service (read that how you will). It also has green Penguins by the yard and a good section on local history, which is what I was there for. I’ve been twice and both times bought more than necessary. A good thing.



New Walk Museum. Entrance is currently from the rear.

The New Walk museum has a tidy and eclectic collection of stuffed creatures. Sadly, my own taste being for the bizarreries to be found collections of this nature …


A tragic visage from Güzelyürt Municipal Museum

… but of more interest is its tidy and eclectic collection of art. One room (while they’re renovating) is a broad survey of about 500 years of Western European art with the emphasis on the solid Victorian Frithish stuff. But there are a few gems of which the best is a de la Tour of a choirboy. De la Tour was not prolific (around 40 canvases apparently) so it was a very pleasant surprise to find his Choirboy hidden away in a corner of the stage area of the main gallery. Even poorly exhibited one can see that his handling of light is extraordinary. And the choirboy don’t look like no choirboy if you know what I mean. V sinister. Also there’s a good Orpen of an Old Bag on a Couch. Look at the Sisley too in that room and a good, solid 19thC depiction of the Thames.

Pass by Hogarth secure in the knowledge that he did far better things and go to the other room which houses twentieth century British stuff. Apparently this is just a small sample of their collection which means that it’s ideal. About twenty pieces, all high class. Some by artists you’ll know (eg Stanley Spencer) but also others who you won’t like Robert Beven (sp?) and his View of St John’s Wood. The gallery is worth a lunchtime of anyone’s time.

They also have occasional concerts – I was absolutely GUTTED to have missed Mahan Esfahani doing Goldberg.



The Globe. Zach pulls a mean pint.

As I pointed out in my review the Parcel Yard is better than your average station pub, on the ale side at least. But superior options are to be found (‘Don’t go to the Spoons!’ wailed my students when I asked for a recommendation). The Globe has a good range of booze and what’s more has a DMU graduate called Zach on the pumps. He’s a nice feller and so is his boozer if you’re looking for a pubby pub. Also a good find was the Brewdog pub – good music, excellent chips and tasty beer. They also do carry outs for when you’re the only person leaving Leicester when Seville are in town and you need to drown your sorrows at missing the match while you’re on your way back to London.


Brewdog: Knowledgable bar staff, cracking ale and good, quick food.



De Montfort itself has a fine collection. Though the place seems to be in a permanent state of construction there’s peace to be found down by the river. Just by the university is Newarke House Museum. The museum is a typical local museum that tells the history of the city succinctly and very well with good bits of oral history about the industries that made the city what it is. They also had a good exhibition on the First World War when I was there and it seems that they turn round exhibitions quite frequently, which encourages repeat visits.


Unmissable if you go to Leicester is the Guildhall. It’s one of a smattering of picturesque half-timbered survivals but the real glory lies within.


That is a proper fireplace. The room it’s in ain’t bad either with 17th Century wall paintings, injunctions to clean living (the hall acted as a seat of justice back in the day) and a couple of yeomanly portraits of local dignitaries from the past.


But what if you’re hungry? You could do any one of a number of chain sandwich places but I prefer to find somewhere a bit more independent.


Samosa central

For food on the hoof Currant Affairs does the best samosas I’ve ever had outside of a restaurant. It’s all vegan/veggie friendly and their boast that’s it’s freshly made in the day is not an idle one. You can taste the freshness.


For coffee and a sit down you can’t beat St. Martin’s coffee bar. They have excellent coffee and if you’re hungry you can get hot food made to order. A favourite of mine was an Indonesian pork stir fry with bacony slabs of pork on tangy spicy noodles and plenty of vegetables. And good value too.

Leicester is a good place and I’m looking forward to going back for a bit of cricket/football/rugby soonest.

Review #85 De Belhamel, Amsterdam

October 3, 2016

Saturday, after a morning in the Rijksmuseum, I was fresh and raring to get stuck into some quality food while the day was still young in Amsterdam. We’d wisely booked ahead at De Belhamel on the basis of its canal-side location and good reviews. It didn’t let us down.

Despite the sun it was a bit chilly to sit outside but they’d booked us a table in the window so the view was just as good. We gazed down upon the canal, the misguided stag’n’hen parties (not all of them as festive as you’d imagine) and the passers-by. The room itself is tastefully shabbed Art Nouveau, smart without being overly formal. Just like the clientèle in fact which ranged from well-turned out locals to discerning trippers.

We took a look at the menu while we sipped a home-made elderflower liqueur (delicious, a foretaste of things to come). You can take a 3-course set lunch for around €40 but being in an expansive mood we went à la carte. Watercress soup with a sliver of brie-style cheese on the side was a good, crisp way to set up a four hour lunch without ruining one’s appetite. We demolished a bottle of Sancerre with that and waited for our mains.

Guinea fowl was a fiddly customer but came on a bed of buttery mash with a large helping of greens. The bread was very good. Not having any appointments in the afternoon we decided to have some Bordeaux to aid conversation, which is the only excuse one of our number has for asking the waitresses if they were sisters. Translated into Dutch for the whole staff to hear this provoked gales of laughter from the dining room to the kitchen, and from the volume of it possibly beyond.

Despite this provocation the service continued to be charm itself and we settled into dessert, which was also yum in three ways. Coffee to round off and we strolled out into the crowds as a trio of Halsian bonhomie.

Into the top ten dinners of 2016.


To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

Review #75 The Botany Bay, Margate

September 3, 2016

In Margate for a short break we had dinner at the Botany Bay Hotel, drawn in by its beautiful seaside setting and its convenience. Well, the view, as you can see, is outstanding. A big sky, a sheltered sandy beach and white cliffs. Alas, looking out of the window was the highpoint of a disappointing meal.

We’d booked for eight o’clock and there were a smattering of fellow residents, mostly of advanced years. A large airy room with free tables by the score we were ordered to choose one of the tables for two. Were they expecting a last minute rush of foursomes? Perhaps a charabanc full of hungry gastronomes?

After sitting as close to the view as we could the music was the first thing that struck me. I haven’t heard Bananarama’s Love in the First Degree for some time and I really can’t say that I ever want to hear it again. Certainly not when I’m eating dinner. (And it got more mind-bendingly eclectic than that over the course of the evening.)

Or not eating dinner as it might be more accurately put. We ordered at eight, a shared starter of a seafood platter. Being by the sea one might think that a seafood platter would be a doddle; packed with fishy good things fresh from the boat, the market or at least the wholesaler. It took us 45 minutes to find out. While we waited we sipped a glass of champagne and whiled away our time listening to the couple next to us haggle a complimentary dessert in recompense for a crab and pine nut pasta that apparently contained neither crab nor pine nut (‘They’re in the sauce’ ‘I can’t see them’ ‘That’s because they’re mixed up’). A creeping sense of food dread might have overtaken us but being on holiday we were more amused than stressed by our predicament.

After about half an hour a waiter approached and asked us if we’d like our starter? The general consensus was that we would.

Fifteen minutes later our seafood platter arrived. A breadboard on which smoked mackerel, some curiously watery crayfish, a roll or two of smoked salmon and a smidge of limp salad were arranged without guile or artifice but simply left as they had fallen from the various plastic packets that the chef had seemingly purchased from the local Tesco’s. And I’m not talking their Finest range. Two slices of white bread were ok.

Did we want our red wine now? Yes please, we might need a bottle each, ahahah … it can only improve eh?* Well, steak and chips, not difficult to do competently. Oh no. Oh no oh no. Rare steak in these parts comes brown through to its very core. Chips are difficult to get wrong in a seaside town and they were ok. The amount of watercress alongside would have been inadequate for a moderately hungry hamster. But what’s this? Not one but TWO sauces! A sinister blue cheese thing with the consistency of clotted cream and an aioli with a skin thicker than Donald Trump. I ploughed manfully on in that too British way. Family members reading this will know that when I say it reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking that is definitely not a compliment.

Salvation came in the form of Kentish cheese. Three generous hunks of the good stuff in the variety of blue cheese (saving a reputation almost tossed away by the sauce), a cheddar-ish cheese and a goat-ish cheese. They were good. But we didn’t know what they were as by this time the waitress was squirting down next door’s table with some industrial cleaner and most definitely making it clear that we were keeping her up. I suspected she wasn’t in the mood to divulge the identity of the cheese.

I reflected that it had taken them two and a half hours to serve us three courses in which a total of only four or so elements were actually cooked! One wondered what the chef was doing in between his toil on our behalf … a few frames of snooker perhaps, or the dog needed a walk? Maybe he wanted to catch up on season 2 of Breaking Bad? (I’ve heard it’s very good, kinda difficult to drag yourself away from.) It’s a mystery that remains wrapped in an enigma.

So, go to The Botany Bay for the view, for the rooms (ours was very good) and for the bar. But until they get their act together don’t go for the food. It’s tragic that a restaurant in such a prime location with a vast amount of local produce on its doorstep can’t put together a simple menu that would generate trade and act as an advert for the hotel and the food of the Kent Coast. If anyone connected to the business is reading this I’d give three ideas (I’m sure I could come up with more if we brainstormed it) for improving the restaurant.

  1. Train your staff to pretend that they like people even if they can’t actually bring themselves to genuinely like people.
  2. Think about what music you’re playing to the customers if you have to play music.
  3. Use local produce and tell the customer what farm, smokehouse, vineyard, fishmarket and butcher thay come from.

3/10 For the cheese and the wine. Thank God I had good company, if it was anyone else I might have been suicidal by the end of the night.

*The wine, a Malbec, was good.


A local resident takes a break from staff training.


A short guide to Southwark jury service

June 16, 2016

My munching time has been severely curtailed of late due to a six week stint as a jury member at Southwark Crown Court. But fear not, the reviews shall return with fearsome frequency now that I’m at liberty and the holiday season has begun.

In the meantime I thought a little taste of what it is to be a juror might be of use to those who haven’t yet been called to do their citizenly duty. Obviously I’ll not go into the details of what I was involved in there – that would be against the law. But I will say that being a juror is a uniquely rewarding experience in that it is one of the few times in your life where you’ll be asked to think and debate for altruistic purposes and with the certain knowledge that what you say will be listened to seriously and have an actual real-life outcome. Don’t avoid it, do it.

Message over, on with the faff.

HMS Belfast

What the hell (you may be asking yourself) is HMS Belfast doing as the header image for jury service. Well, you may have seen the Royal Navy’s finest on your way over London Bridge from time to time and thought, ‘Oh, I really must go and see that outpost of the Imperial War Museum that once fired the opening round of the pre-D-Day landings barrage.’ Or you may be thinking, ‘Wow that’s a bloody great warship in the Thames, what the shit’s that doing there?’

It’s guarding Southwark Crown Court.

That’s right, Her Maj takes justice seriously and just to show how seriously she takes it she’s parked twelve 6″ guns in four triple turrets outside SCC to discourage miscreants and show villains that she means business.

Day One

Day one of jury service is like the first day of school. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing except for you. Those who’ve been doing service for a week or more will flick elastic bands at you or flush your head down the toilet (if they can get it to work, just think of the horrific consequences should you have the misfortune to be in the 50% of cubicles whose flush does not work). Security guards will tut as you set off the scanner once again with an inappropriately secreted personal item. Don’t worry, by day three you’ll know the rules and be able to reel off the security code for the door without even looking at a series of numbers ballpointed on the palm of your hand. But how do you achieve this level of wisdom before you turn up?

Prepare for a queue

Monday queues are the worst as the fresh intake of jurors has yet to be separated into sheep (switched on, publicly-minded servants of their fellow citizens) and goats (the workshy, the I’m too important to take two weeks away and the genuinely unable to do JS). So be prepared for a queue out the door and the possibility of it raining while you’re waiting.

Bring a book

If you’ve got this far I’m assuming you can read so yes, bring a book. You may have to wait all day to be called. And then get sent home without being called. Take a good book of your choice. They have books in SCC but you don’t want to read them. You want to read yours. Ah, you’re thinking, but I can read a book (or similar) on my phone/pad/laptop. You can but a book won’t let you down. SCC is set up for technology from the 1980s. So bring a book. Or a ZX81. Also, having your own book will make you look clever and impress your potential fellow jurors.*


You will already have filled in several forms before arriving at court. Be prepared for more if you care about claiming expenses. Do not talk about this process, your fellow jurors will already be bored by it themselves.


Instructions will be delivered via a prehistoric DVD attached to a telly stuck on the ceiling or over a tannoy. Or not at all. It’s your job to guess which ones are important to you without revealing any uncertainty. Uncertain jurors, like lame zebra, are the first to be predated upon by the strong.


All court employees are professional comedians. Remember, they’ve been doing this act for years and they know it’s funny. So make sure you laugh at the appropriate moments.


Or ‘food’. It may be a chore to go outside but it is definitely worth your while.


See Food. With bells on.

The Southwark Crown Court Experience

So let’s assume you’ve been picked and you’re now a pro-juror, what tips do I have?

The jury

You and your fellow eleven citizens will spend a lot of time in one another’s company. More than you will have spent with anyone except your partner, your kids, your ailingest relative or even many of your work colleagues. And certainly more than you’ve spent with someone you actually wanted to spend time with. Often in a tiny room. These people won’t be your friends but they will be your team so do the nice with them even if they really get on your tits. It might turn out that they’re as worth knowing as you are, and even genuinely good people.


DO NOT, unless you really have the most severe hangover/cold/agoraphobia going, lunch in SCC. Go somewhere better instead.


Jury service is an opportunity to see things you’ve never got round to seeing. As well as the behemoth of Belfast you have the Old Operating Theatre, The London Fashion & Textile Museum, Guy’s Hospital Chapel, even Tower Bridge within walking distance. And massive amounts of good things should you be fortunate enough to get a long lunch or late start.


The Old Operating Theatre lies in the former chapel on the left. Guy’s Hospital chapel is on the right of this street. The Shard is dead ahead but you don’t want to go there.

But not the Shard please. And definitely not the ‘London Bridge Experience’. Please god, those poor tourists. And failed actors.

Lawyers & judges

If you thought the court staff were funny wait till you hear the lawyers! They have better jokes because they’re paid more. And the judge has the best jokes of all because he can lock you up if you don’t chuckle. Or if you chuckle inappropriately. So play it safe when the judge cracks a joke and just smile winningly.

The defendant 

Mysteriously humourless!

Okay, so that’s a start but I may add more as things occur to me. Jury service is like that. One second you’re lining up to pot a tricky black to snatch the frame, the next your mind is filled with the contents of Jury Bundle 141 (which involves a particularly opaque series of financial transactions) and you’ve gone in off and the beers are on you. Yes, to paraphrase Stephen Dedelus on Bloomsday, jury service is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

*If you’ve forgotten your book I can recommend the excellent Riverside Bookshop in Hay’s Galleria for a last-minute purchase.

Obligatory Borough Market Review

June 7, 2016

Can there be anyone who writes about food in London who hasn’t devoted a post to Borough Market? I don’t usually like to follow the herd but since I’ve been confined to SE1 for an age doing my citizenly duty I felt I had to share my experience. Borough Market is a (ugh) ‘foodie heaven’ of sorts but good luck on getting by on your £6 food allowance from Her Maj’s Court Service.

Some of the stalls I could identify from the BM website but others you’ll just have to rely on the photo to work out who they are.

Koshari Street

Often the shortest queue in the row (not that you’d think so from the above photo) and in the upper echelon of taste. Pasta, lentils, chick peas, chilli sauce and crunchy onions – suitable for veggie/vegans and excellent value. Recommended.

Gumbo Alley

Yama hama!! Went there three times it was so good. Me like gumbo.

The Turkish Deli

Oh I do like Turkish Coffee, it’s so civilised. And doesn’t make you into a twitchy, sweaty lump after two servings. This coffee was as good as any you’d get on Green Lanes, as was the lokum (of the lemon variety, I’ll be back for more of that when I need cheering up). Shame they don’t have suçuk though. Sat and supped while doing the crossword as the rain bounced off the roof. Made me wish I’d gone to Istanbul more before Erdogan got in.

Perfection in a cup

Be warned, it’s not open every day.

The Colombian Coffee Company

Had a monster chat with the guy about his business model which is to import coffee from co-operatives in Colombia. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, he wants to do a PhD in ethical business. All power to his elbow. Having been sat watching lawyers for 6 weeks I know what I’d rather do. The coffee is excellent btw whether you buy from the stall or go home and make it yourself. Which reminds me I ought to restock on beans before I finish jury service.

Flat Cap Coffee

Flat cap guy (who sounds like he’s from Hartlepool) brightens up any day and is so cheerful he wouldn’t even join in trash-talking Starb*cks. Outstanding coffee prepared efficiently. The stall to go to if you want a quick fix of the good stuff.

Malaysian Curry

Perfect pre-5-a-side food. Not too much heat, generous chunks of meat in a tasty sauce and on a hefty bed of rice. And less than a fiver. Wolfed down while stood by the bins.


Hot chorizo in a good bread with two slithers of slimy-as-I-like-it pepper. V good if a little overpriced. Ate it while sat on the floor watching the world go by.

Lamb Baps

Disappointing gristly lumps of lamb in a dry roll with negligible vegetable input. Until I loaded it with ferocious mustard, whose heat at least took my mind off what a chore it would be to unclog my teethjoints before I could face society again.

Khanom Krok

Laksa. Sour and hot with a lot of floaty things. Not the most elegant to eat but packed full of flavour and made me happy.

Southwark Cathedral Refectory

Strictly speaking not part of Borough Market (in fact since last I visited the area they now have a policy of locking the gates of the grounds to Market eaters) but in the vicinity and paid for up front. Well, if you’re looking for a quick lunch this ain’t the place to come. Obstacles to a 40-minute eating window are as follows:-

  1. Going elbow to elbow with with the time rich in order to get some grub. I like senior citizens, in fact I’m planning on becoming one myself one day. But when I do I hope that I’ll still be able to make a decision about what I’d like to eat without taking Trav, Mike and Tariq’s opinion about it first before deciding that I’ll just have a cup of tea and wait till later.
  2. Servers to whom the question, ‘How many sides can I have with the chicken?’ appears to be one of the most impenetrable mysteries of the universe. I still don’t know the answer and resorted to pointing at things.
  3. Limited till skills. Monkeys jabbing randomly with sticks could have done it more accurately and within the time it takes to boil a mild temper.

Balkan Bites

For £5 you get hummus, hot lentils and the best borek I’ve ever had. Flaky pastry, oozy cheese and spinach. All topped off with a surprisingly fiery chilli dust. Ideal for veggies.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?******


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.


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.


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

Getting ejected from galleries

October 11, 2015

Having recently strayed from one of the purposes of this blog, which is to flag up things of interest to those in London on a limited budget, I return to the theme with two excellent exhibitions at RIBA and Ordovas Gallery. But with slight misgivings.

As someone who occasionally works in the tourism/hospitality industry one of my key bugbears as a cultural consumer in London is the shabbiness with which many venues (often but not exclusively at the high end) treat potential punters. I got a right-left combination of snottiness on these recent visits.

First up, RIBA. I’d gone there for lunch with a friend and with the idea of dropping into the Palladio exhibition that had been mentioned in the FT over the weekend. For a London guide a refresher course on Palladio is always welcome as his revival of the classical underpins so much of London’s great architecture, not least Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich and Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.

So we ducked in to RIBA’s HQ on Portland Place and strolled into the gallery. It seemed a bit quiet but I didn’t really think much of it and we started to browse the (excellent) drawings, photographs, books and captions while swapping a bit of idle chit-chat. We had about 15 minutes of this before a seated lady, who I’d assumed was writing up some notes, boomed out, ‘ARE YOU MEMBERS?!’

Neither of us sporting the standard issue black turtleneck and round tortoiseshell glasses it was clear that she’d rumbled us as not being Pro-Architects. John might have slipped under the wire – he can adopt a hieratic mien when required – but we were both blind-sided by the sheer novelty of such a bewilderingly belated verbal assault in the hushed corridors of the Temple of Hestia. We retired Molesworth-like, chuntering.

By chance I had to do some research in the library at RIBA this week but wasn’t tempted to go back and finish my visit to Palladio (it’s open to the public now), the shame was still too fresh! But the exhibition is free and on the basis of seeing about a quarter of it it’s definitely worth the detour.

Froideur from the galleries of Mayfair is pretty much standard so I was less surprised by the second outburst of curmudge a few days later. It was one of those days when despite the morning sun you just know it’s going to piss down at some point of the day. Yet, being a Londoner, you look at the umbrella on your way out of the house and think, ‘Naaah, I’ll be alright.’ How wrong could I be.

It was spitting when I ducked out of the library, having checked the exhibition opening hours (see, I’d learned from my RIBA experience) and it’s only 5 minutes to Savile Row so I thought I’d be okay. It was a downpour before I’d crossed Piccadilly and I was pretty wet by the time I arrived across the road from my destination. A quick stop in a dry spot under an entrance to wipe my glasses and check that I was in the right place (I’d only walked past Ordovas before so just had a vague idea of which end of Savile Row it was on) and I strolled confidently across the road.

As someone was standing behind the closed glass door my pace got more hesitant as I reached my destination and then stalled as it was clear that it wasn’t going to be opened up. I was standing in the rain like a confused, wet muppet. I smiled at the lady through the glass door and pointed at the art through the window. She opened the door about 6 inches and with all the scrubbed clean charm of a Club Class Shitter told me the gallery was closed but would be open again tomorrow. Now I was a fuming wet muppet chuntering back down Savile Row.

But joy! Look at these sheep

Rural Savile Row

Rural Savile Row

The street had been lined with real grass and these beasts were in town to promote the use of British wool by the fashion industry. Such random interventions in the city are what make it worth living in and cut through bad weather, poor hospitality and unevenness of temper.

Not rural Savile Row

Not rural Savile Row

With a sunnier disposition and under a sunnier sky I did return the next day, giving myself and la gardienne another chance. It was worth it. Their exhibition, The Big Blue, is one of the best things in London right now and it’s free. Curated by Damien Hirst the obvious star of the show is one of

his sharks, whose tank greets you as you enter the space.

This and the other works (all of them high quality) share a connection to the sea. I was mesmerised by a large seascape by Francis Bacon. A seascape. I never even knew Bacon did seascapes! But of course being Bacon it’s much more than a seascape. At first glance it seemed quite abstract, the sense of the sea certainly comes through but then there are some characteristic geometrical figures at the bottom of the canvas that break the sense of reality. I discerned a ship at the centre, a sailing ship. But then what at first seemed spars started to transform themselves into the constituents of a gallows, a figure top right seemed an ironic Arc de Triomphe and the whole painting turned into a vanitas – something much more in line with Bacon’s usual bleak depiction of existence.

Thankfully it wasn’t all bleakness. A sunny Picasso, all rhythmic arabesques, dispelled the gloom, and each work was a gem in its own way. Unlike the FT I found the whole thing very thoughtfully arranged and Damien Hirst went up a notch in my esteem. Despite the false start I felt very happy that Ordovas, and other galleries like them, open up their doors to the non-1%-ers. I just wish they’d be a bit more hospitable about it.

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