Posts Tagged ‘Museums’

‘A Soldier’s Song’ visits the Inns of Court

March 5, 2019

The Devil’s Own recruit from the quality.

‘He’s a devil this boy!’ I didn’t know when I wrote that line for A Soldier’s Song how apposite it would turn out. As part of the research for the production of the show we had a cast visit to the Inns of Court & City Yeomanry Museum in a crepuscular corner of Lincoln’s Inn where the Regiment still has its HQ.


Appropriatley Dickensian digs for the Inns of Court & City Yeomanry

As you can see from the poster above the Inns of Court are nicknamed ‘The Devil’s Own’ so it seemed entirely correct that our Hector, the dashing World War 1 hero, should be described by his old batman Hobbs as a devil.

Major O’Beirne gave us an excellent tour of the bijou collection of memorabilia and photographs which tell the story of the regiment from its origins in England’s deep past right through wars local and global to the present day.

One sinister highlight was a Nazi flag rummaged from a box in a cupboard rumoured to have been swiped from Luneberg Heath on the day of the Germans’ surrender in 1945. The Devil’s Own themselves had had a tough introduction to Europe, landing in Normandy with instructions to blow bridges across the Orne only to find themselves under fire from some trigger happy American Typhoons.

IMG_0326 2.jpeg

The Berkhamstead Boys pose in 1915

Of course we lapped up the tales of derring do but nudged our host in the direction of World War One – what had the IoY been up to between 1914 and 1918? By coincidence it turned out that they’d been based in our leading man’s backyard of Berkhamstead! Looking through the photographs he could pick out the golf course – once used for trench warfare – Kitchener’s Field parade ground, and local landmarks like this church porch.


Looking through the sepia images of young men being trained for War it really was a most inspiring visit, especially with the wealth of visual detail that we were able to pick up. I only hope James’s moustache can live up to WW1 standards!

#theatre #London #ASoldiersSongPlay

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.

The Foundling Museum

October 8, 2015

The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is one of those small London museums that is easy to miss. They’ve had some publicity recently due to their new exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which discusses the issues of extra-marital sex and prostitution in the nineteenth century and the responses from social reformers and artists. I can wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition, which is a timely response to the execrably exploitative J**k the R*****r outfit in the East End.*

What I’m more concerned with here though is to point out that you don’t need the excuse of a special exhibition to visit the Foundling, the permanent collection more than justifies a visit by itself. The story of the foundation of the hospital in the 18th century through the strenuous efforts of Thomas Coram is well documented and I would urge anyone who is interested in the development of London to do a little reading in Roy Porter to get a sense of the background.**

Tommy C. Ledge.

Tommy C – Ledge.

Take a good look at the statue of Thomas Coram in the courtyard, which is based on a portrait by Hogarth that you’ll find inside. One of the pleasures of the museum is that it gives you a cross section of the greatest visual artists working in London through the early years of the Hospital’s history. So you’ll find Hogarth’s portrait of Coram, as well as one of his best satirical works, The March of the Guards to Finchley, works by Reynolds and Rysbrack, as well as a set of Rowlandson prints. These are all good fodder for 18thC buffs and count among the things one might expect from a visit. But one of the pleasures of small museums, whose collections are necessarily not comprehensive but often rely on the less-fêted gifted works to fill the walls, is coming across the things that you didn’t expect to see.

Freddy H. Dude.

Freddy H. Dude.

On this occasion the first of these, the Handel collection on the top floor, wasn’t exactly something that I hadn’t expected to see, it was rather a collection that I didn’t expect to find so fascinating. Handel was another major benefactor of the Hospital, holding benefit recitals for the foundlings of his Messiah in the great hall of the original building. The current collection houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection which has all sorts of fascinating objects to it, as well as being an enormous collection of Handel manuscripts.

18th C Handel manuscripts

18th C Handel manuscripts

One of the things that I liked about the collection, and it’s a feeling I similarly got in Dr Johnson’s House last year, is how much these great figures of 18th century London depended on collaboration and clubbability to make their way through the cultural economy. Aristocratic patronage was still important to get publication or put on a show but it wasn’t the only means of making one’s way in the world. The growth in disposable income of the middle and working classes meant that their work could be genuinely popular and commercially viable, especially if two or more artists came together to pool their talents – as is documented by Handel’s partnership with Dryden to produce Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musick. It feels like you’re peering in to the birth of modern London to see the documents of all these collaborative projects.

18th C Bacharach and David

The Power of Musick 

Such a collaborative approach is strikingly used in the contemporary artworks on the ground floor that respond to the history of the foundling children. The story of the foundlings is well told through documents, visuals and oral testimonies in a way that will appeal to children as well as to adults. A lot of people I’ve talked to about the museum find the tokens, items that mothers left with their baby that could be used as proof of parenthood if they later came to claim back their child, the most moving exhibits.

Ale token

Ale token

Just as touching to me on my visit was a work produced in collaboration between the artist Emma Middleton, the animator Shelly Wain and the child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The museum, in my view, is worth visiting for this contemporary artwork alone. It’s tucked away around a corner so make sure that you don’t miss it!

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

And then there were all the little items in between the big stuff. Two of which were by an artist, Anne Susanna Zileri, who was entirely new to me. Her paintings of The Secretary’s Room and The Court Room are utterly fascinating in their muted mysteriousness. They put me in mind of de Hooch interiors rendered in the style of Hammershøi. Without any human figures her rooms have the feeling of having just been vacated, yet they are not without human warmth. These little discoveries are the kinds of thing that you rarely make in a major gallery or museum. Zileri might not work her magic in any other context, it might be that her rooms work because they resonate with the real rooms that you’ve just passed through but the testing out will be an unexpected pleasure. If I can find anything else of hers on public display.

One caveat I have about the Foundling is that at £8.50 for a standard ticket it is on the north side of reasonably priced. Entry is free with an Art Fund card but I wonder if the museum might take a leaf from the London Transport Museum’s book and encourage repeat visits by letting the £8.50 cover a calendar year of visiting. With such a diverse collection there’ll be treasure missed on a one off visit that are worth going back for.

* In my last post about the Salvation Army I was fully prepared to give it with both barrels to the tawdry industry around the Whitechapel Murders but didn’t really feel the need to add to the excellent work done by the many historians and guides who have piled in against it. I gave up doing tours about the subject very quickly after becoming a guide (although if I’d stuck with it I could quite easily have made a living from that alone) and if people ask me to guide that narrative I make them a counter-offer of a more contextualised history of the East End.

** Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London, 1994) Peter Ackroyd writes more wordily but Porter has better historical chops.

On small museums

June 28, 2015

This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?

Erik Satie. Dude.

Erik Satie. Dude.

Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.

Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.

But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.

On the Set of Entr'acte

On the Set of Entr’acte

I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).

The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.

And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.

Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.


And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.

It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.

* The individuals are named below …

Cast list

Cast list

** And it’s free

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 Lunchtime Music in London

May 13, 2015

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

This was a picture that I culled from the Financial Times a while ago that was partly responsible for my taking up the trumpet late in life (sorry Denize, I know it’s loud). Rushing, if you’re not familiar with his work, was in his pomp in the 50s when he recorded a version of his biggest hit – Mr. 5 by 5 (so called because he was said to be 5′ tall and 5′ wide) – with Lyttleton’s band.

It inspired a feeling in nostalgia, not because I remember the 1950s, I’m not quite that old, but because I was introduced to jazz by listening to Lyttleton’s Best of Jazz on Radio 2 when I was at sixth form. While other people switched on to John Peel (and I would turn to him after Lyttleton’s hour was up) I would get a selection of the best of jazz and feel my whole musical world expand. He was a ‘curator’ before there were ‘curators’.*

So, at the end of my PhD, aside from trying to find an academic job and writing up articles/books, I needed a project. The manager’s vacancy at Perfidious Albion had been filled (it’s currently open again if anyone wants to apply). Music was on my mind. I’d seen Rusbridger’s exercise in egoma … errr, interesting project of learning the piano heavily publicised by the middle class media and the thought of trying out an instrument seemed a good one. But not the piano, I like it too much to spoil it. My son was/is learning trombone and I had the sound of brass in my head. And I wanted something portable and with an adaptable sound. This picture struck my eyes and a plan to play the trumpet was born.

I am fortunate enough to live close to a top class young trumpeter (‘James The Trumpet’** to distinguish him from my son) who was a student at the Guildhall when I first started but is now doing a Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for a long time but it wasn’t till I met James that I thought to go to the RAM for a bit of lunchtime music (I haven’t managed to see him there yet, to my shame) and its different atmosphere to my usual haunts (the Wigmore and St. James’s Piccadilly) put me in mind to do a little round up of what’s on offer in the West End at lunchtime for a time-rich, cash-poor music fan.*** Because each (and I’m using SJP as an exemplar of the free music on offer in lots of churches in London at lunchtimes – another favourite is St Bride’s, Fleet Street) has a very distinct profile both of performers and market.

But my main concern is to publicise the fact that these things happen at all. When I go to these venues, from the library or from home, I invariably have to walk along at least one portion of three of the busiest shopping streets in the country – Marylebone High Street, Piccadilly and Oxford Street. One of the attractions of going to a lunchtime concert is that you step from the noisy sea of humanity that is the West End into places of absolute calm and thoughtfulness. And I don’t intend to give the impression that going to a lunchtime recital is a relaxing experience in some shallow cheesy listening classics way.

Far from it.

These concerts are for thinking; for engaging with the relationship between performer, sound and architecture. And above all, if it’s going well, a concert gives a satisfying rush of emotion, of diverse emotions over the course of an hour long performance. In many cases it’s for donations only, or for the Wigmore (where the performers they have on Mondays are extraordinarily good) for 13 quid.

What troubles me though is that even for an established venue like the Wigmore it isn’t difficult to get tickets. The church and college performances are sometimes moderately, sometimes sparsely, attended. There are thousands upon thousands of people shopping, scoffing sandwiches, boozing, idling within minutes of the doors of these venues who would surely enjoy a more cerebral, or more visceral lunch.

I think one of the off-putting things is that if you haven’t been you don’t know what to expect. There’s very little commentary on what happens in these places on the internet, except among those already in the know, and hard as the publicity departments of the Wigmore and the Colleges work it’s obviously very hard for them to compete with the tidal wave of garbage on Twitter.

And I remember that when I worked in the City (nearly twenty years ago) I used to walk past a sign for concerts quite frequently (usually at St. Mary-at-Hill, sometimes at the Pepys church) without being tempted in because somehow I thought (as a Sarfend/pit village raised geezer) that they weren’t for me. Which is the kind of blinkered nonsense it took me a long time to get over.

So in a spirit of encouraging fellow chip on the shoulder sufferers, and I hope with not too much disrespect to the institutions themselves, I offer this brief guide to two venues I’ve been to a lot and one venue that was new to me with my thoughts on who goes there, what’s on offer and how to get the best out of the experience.

1. The Wigmore Hall

The Mighty Wigmore

The Mighty Wigmore

The Wigmore Hall is the daddy of all chamber music venues in London. It has a fascinating history, which I won’t go into here because that’s not what this post is for (but do look it up). Just walking through the door you can feel a sense of history. This oozes out of the grand architecture and is backed up by portraits of the multitudes of performers who have played there over more than a century of music-making.

The crowd is similarly historic and one could be forgiven that some of them were there for the opening night way back before World War 1 (the war was significant for the Wigmore, it had previously been known as the Bechstein). These venerable patrons mix with obvious high-brows and a range of eccentrics who put the regular Joes and Josephines (among whom I count myself, I’m often among the youngest there) in quite a small minority.

So architecture and punters can combine to make up a pretty intimidating atmosphere for the lunchtime neophyte.

Fear not, this is one of the most knowledgable music crowds you’ll ever be among and if you dare to break the ice with someone at the (excellent) bar before or after you’ll generally be very welcome. The Wigmore costs (13 pounds on Monday) and I’m aware this can be a barrier to entry for some but it’s cheaper for students and you get an excellent small programme included. The bonus of the Wigmore series is that since it’s featured on R3’s lunchtime slot you can listen live and then listen again at home via their website or on Sunday when it’s usually repeated.

My own ideal routine goes an hour in the library, sweets (overpriced but cough candy is a bit of a madeleine for me so worth it) from Mrs Kibble’s in St Christopher Place, a cheeky little pre-action Viognier in the bar with the crossword (the staggering distance pubs are not good) and then get there just in time to an end seat if possible. The regulars do not like being made to stand up once they’re sitting and the seats are quite tight.

The repertoire is generally solidly Baroque/Classical/Romantic big beasts, with the odd bit of twentieth century/contemporary thrown in from time to time, meaning that if anything too atonal isn’t your bag there shouldn’t be too much to frighten you here. The performers are uniformly outstanding (and I mean world class), whether established artists or members of the BBC’s New Generations programme and the Hall’s acoustic is reputed to be one of the best in Europe. The first time I went there I thought there was something wrong because I could hear the music too clearly. My brain had to adjust to the crystalline sound in order to make it appear normal to me. That’s a feeling that still returns if I haven’t been there for a while and have been going to mudpits (see StJP below).

So what I’m saying is one shouldn’t count oneself a Londoner without at least one visit to this, the best music venue in London bar none.

2. St. James’s Piccadilly

St. James's Piccadilly

St. James’s Piccadilly

St JP is worth a visit even if not for the music and I think the first time I heard some music there was because I happened to be visiting to do some research for a walk when a concert was about to start. The building is by Wren, with much restoration following bomb damage in World War II, and being at the heart of St James’s has oodles of connections with the rich and famous through history.

Its position on Piccadilly means that the crowd it gets is a mixed bunch. A lot of the un-idle retired (as always at these things), with a smattering of youngsters (especially if the performer is a music student), some local office workers and a dollop of more or less confused tourists, depending on whether they knew in advance of their visit to the church that there was a concert on. This means that for the newcomer, by contrast to the Wigmore, you will not be alone in being new.

Of course another upside at St. James’s, if you’re not sure you’re up for the lunchtime music scene, is that the concerts are free (although if you’ve enjoyed the gig you’d be an ingrate beast not to make a donation on the way out) and performers are not concerned if you leave in between pieces (although NOT in between movements) as there will be some in the crowd who don’t have the full hour off for lunch and necessarily have to leave.

Those on a budget can get cheap eats before/after out the back of the church where there’s a street food stall, with park benches in the Square for scoffing space. And naturally there’s plenty of sandwich bars and restos in St. James’s and environs. Booze hounds might want to check out the Red Lion for its Victorian interior though the crowd in there can be a bit brayingly hedgey.

The repertoire at StJP is similar to the Wigmore – mostly killer no filler. Occasionally there’ll be a new piece (sometimes with the composer in attendance) as this venue is one where students often come to get some concert practice and they’re more adventurous. So probably a bit more variety than at the Wigmore. But be warned – there are three potential downsides. The acoustic is not the best and it pays to sit near the front. If you want to do this you’ll need to get there early as the front rows often fill up quite quickly. There is also a lot of construction in St. James’s. Those builders don’t stop for anyone, not even Schubert.

Also, if you’re there for the duration try and judge that the person in your row is there for the music and not liable to get up halfway through/start scrunching their sweet packet/be jabbing their phone. The pews are uncompromisingly pew-ish too, be prepared for a bit of fidgeting to get a comfortable lie.

Thirdly, standards can vary too! The students are generally excellent (to this untrained ear) but there have been occasions when I’ve been in attendance at performances that were excruciatingly bad. I mean not just bad but downright offensively amateurish car crashes of recital.

You might think, ‘I’m up for a bit of car crash classical.’ You are wrong.

After 2 minutes of somebody murdering a masterpiece I promise you that you’ll be holding your head in your hands and silently praying for it to stop. I once had the misfortune of listening to someone in StJP hesitatingly, stutteringly, ham-fistedly not picking their way through Beethoven’s PS 32. This work was described by Robert Taub as “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.”

I was left only with the anguish.

After the pianist had finally stopped I turned to the feller next to me.  ‘Was that as bad as I thought it was?’ I whispered. ‘No’, he replied, ‘It was worse.’

It haunts me to this day.

But it isn’t always like that! Mostly it’s good times in St James’s, well worth the trip if you’re in town and want to rest your feet.

3. Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

The RAM, as mentioned above, was new to me and it was thanks to James the Trumpet that I took a look in there last week for a concert of a Notturno by Haydn and Mozart’s Gran Partita in the Duke’s Hall (I think there’s another hall for chamber works). The Duke’s Hall is smack on the Marylebone Road but you wouldn’t notice once you’re inside the building. All is peace. Well, bustly peace. There are students everywhere and this gives a buzzy atmosphere and makes for a younger crowd than at the other venues. As the concert I attended it was half old buggers like me and half students.

Again, this concert was free and unlike StJP there’s no expectation of a donation – the point of the exercise is for the students to gain concert experience so you can enjoy it for nowt guilt-free. If you’re skint you can lunch in the canteen downstairs. If you’re well-heeled Marylebone High Street is across the road. The hall is purpose built so the sound is great and there’s all sorts of portraits of musicians around the walls to keep your eyes occupied, as well of course as the museum next door (which I may talk about another time).

The performance I saw was introduced and conducted by Trevor Pinnock (though he denied that he needed to conduct these pieces) and was phenomenally good. I knew neither piece and to come to something fresh, performed by outstanding young musicians with a top-rank musician in charge was a privilege. Though if you only have an hour for lunch they weren’t concerned about that, I think the performance lasted about 70 minutes – though again there was no tutting at people ducking in or out between pieces.

As it was my first go I haven’t got a handle on their repertoire yet but I’m assuming that of these three venues it will be the widest as the students learn the full range of serious music – classical, contemporary and jazz. Thursday they’re doing Shostakovich (I’m only just getting into him) Trios and since I’m working in the evening that day it might be the perfect break between library and job.

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this page then I know you’re either a lunchtime concert-goer already or you’re thinking about giving it a go.

Do so. Do something different that might improve your state of mind for the cost of an hour of your time.

* Except of course he wouldn’t have been daft enough to use that term outside of describing someone who worked in a gallery.

** If you want his details for tuition you can contact me here. He is a gent.

*** It also has a stonking museum that I’ll blog about anon.

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