"When a man is tired of London," said the great eighteenth century essayist, Dr. Samuel Johnson, "He is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
Well, perhaps not quite all – the spiritual aspect that can be found only in Jerusalem, is conspicuously lacking in London – but it is the city where I was born and bred, and which I perhaps did not appreciate sufficiently until I began to visit it as a tourist.
So, earlier this month, I duly took myself off for a ten day visit to what, in my opinion, is, after Jerusalem, the greatest city in the world (and I’ve visited plenty, believe me).
Whenever I go to London, as I do almost every year, I like to go the theatre. A lot. This time, I managed to take in two musicals and two plays. The day after my arrival, I saw the latest musical by the team that gave us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon – Boublil and Schoenberg, with music by Michel Legrand. This is an updated version of La Dame aux Camellias by Alexandre Dumas – or, if you prefer, of Verdi’s La Traviata. Transferred to Nazi-occupied Paris in the 1940s, it tells the story of the love affair between Armand, a 23-year-old pianist, and Marguerite, the 40-year-old mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer. Although it is hard, at first, to feel much sympathy with Marguerite (unlike Verdi’s Violetta), by the time the final curtain falls, one might feel moved to shed a tear or two. The one fly in the ointment was that Ruthie Henshall, in the lead, must have been having a bad night because she was distinctly off-key in many of the songs. A pity, because in general, she is one of the best.
Two days later, it was the turn of Zorro – the Musical. The music of the Gypsy Kings, the flamenco dancing, the swordfights – all this made for a couple of hours of pure, foot-tapping entertainment which had the audience on its feet by the end of the evening. This was a brand new show, which had opened less than three weeks earlier. Judging by the audience reaction, it looks set for one of those record-breaking runs for which London’s West End is famous. If any of you are planning on visiting the Metropolis, this should definitely be on your "must see" list!
A visit to the theatre capital of the world would not be complete without some straight theatre, one of those typically British plays with a small cast (six, in this case) which are often a complete surprise. You think to yourself, "Now, what shall I go to see, to while away the evening?" and you find yourself completely lost in the magic that is theatre. The Female of the Species is one such play. When you take your seat in the auditorium, you find yourself looking down on a curtainless stage set representing the library of the country home of feminist icon Margot Mason (played by Dame Eileen Atkins). As the lights dim, the book-lined walls morph into French windows looking out onto fields. Through these doors, an armed intruder – a disgruntled fan – erupts into Margot’s self-satisfied existence. From then on, her life spirals steadily more and more out of control, as a string of unwelcome visitors make their appearance. Margot’s estranged daughter, son-in-law, a taxi driver and finally, her publisher, who turns out to be none other than … no, I won’t tell you. Go and see for yourselves !
On my very last day, and because I didn’t have to leave for the airport till 7 PM, I took my brother to a matinee performance of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. This was a cleverly done reworking of the 1945 movie starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, using both screen and stage. The play actually starts with the two protagonists sitting in the front row of the auditorium, as if watching a movie on the screen which serves as a stage curtain, from whence they jump onto the stage and into the screen.
A very imaginative performance and beautifully acted. In short, a perfect end to my vacation.
But, of course, there is much more to see and do in London besides going to the theatre. The weather was rather inclement throughout my trip, so I couldn’t spend as much time as I usually do in London’s many parks, although my brother and I did manage to while away some pleasant hours in both Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, as well as the Victoria Embankment Gardens. However, my visit coincided with the Doctor Who Exhibition at Earl’s Court. Being avid Doctor Who fans since the series began in the 1960s, we quite enjoyed ourselves but were disappointed to discover that, apart from pictures of the first 7 doctors, there was nothing about the original classic series, which ran till 1989, and that the exhibition was devoted to the new Doctor Who, which started in 2005. Another thing which drew my ire was the fact that although the price of admission was advertised as £9, we were charged a booking fee of 75p, even though we purchased our tickets at the exhibition, in cash!
However, there were plenty of Daleks, so on the whole, it was money well spent…
Daleks – or rather, a single Dalek – was also in evidence at Waterstone’s Piccadilly branch. For those of you who don’t know, Waterstone’s is a chain of bookstores. I went there looking for books 3-5 of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, which I was unable to find here, at Steimatzky’s. I’m not sure what the Dalek was doing there, but who am I to complain?
One of the things I like about London is the fact that one can so often find something completely unexpected to pass the time. I went shopping in Piccadilly and found myself outside St. James’s Church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. On certain days of the week, an art and crafts market takes place in the churchyard and I had hoped to pick up some interesting souvenirs. However, I had picked the wrong day for that. Instead, I discovered that there was to be a lunchtime piano recital that day. So I stayed for that. In fact, many London churches have free lunchtime concerts – the most famous being St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, right opposite the National Gallery.
Another unusual concert venue – although not free – is the Handel House Museum. This was exceedingly hard to find. The guidebooks list it as being in Brook Street, but Brook Street is, itself, a mews off South Molton Street. At the time of my visit, the Museum was holding an exhibition on Handel and the divas, chronicling his relationships with the great prime donne of the day, such as Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, "the Rival Queens", famous for having a cat fight on stage (they didn’t, in fact. The fight was between their respective fans). Other famous divas portrayed were Anastasia Robinson, Susannah Cibber (who performed at the premiere of Messiah in Dublin) and Anna Maria Strada del Po. For a music-lover such as myself, especially one so fond of Baroque music, this was a very interesting exhibition. I was only surprised that among the divas, no mention was made of Mrs Cibber’s sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne, for whom Handel created several roles.
The National Gallery is one of the places I drop into at least once, every time I visit London. This time, there was an exhibition there entitled: Take One Picture. The National Gallery has an imaginative scheme for primary schools, in which, each year, the participating schools focus on one picture from the Gallery’s collection to inspire and stimulate cross-curricular work in the classroom. I found this idea fascinating – and while ideas such as this continue to flourish, there is still hope for the future of education in the UK.
Less encouraging was the news that cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber had come under attack for suggesting that students taking the GCSE examination in Music should actually be required to be able to read music notation! I was astounded to discover that there is, at present, no such requirement! I was still more flabbergasted to learn, from an old schoolfriend whom I met for coffee and whom I haven’t seen for over 35 years, that her daughter had recently graduated from university with a BA in Classical Studies, without actually having studied Latin and Greek!!! So it should have come as no surprise when, in response to the introduction of a new grade – A* – in the GCE A-level examinations, most of the universities announced that they would not be recognising or requiring it. Their ostensible reason? The new grade would give an unfair advantage to wealthy candidates coming from independent (i.e. fee-paying) schools – the assumption no doubt being that education in government schools is so poor that students from such schools would have difficulty in attaining the higher grades.
It seems that the academic world is dominated by the Loony Left, to whom any form of elitism – even intellectual and academic elitism – is anathema. I am happy to say that University College London announced that they would be taking account of the new grade to help in the selection process of future students – thus proving their superiority over such universities as Oxford and Cambridge.
I mentioned my old schoolfriend. Together, we visited the Tate Modern. I am not, in general, a fan of modern art. There were quite a few paintings and sculptures which I rather liked. However, the interpretations given to such creations by so-called art experts, frequently seem to me to be absolutely ludicrous. I have written before about the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. At the Tate Modern, it comes into play with a vengeance. My friend agreed with me.
Whenever I visit London, my brother and I like to visit at least one of our old childhood haunts. Our choice this time fell on Bekenscot Model Village. Although the weather was far from ideal (in fact, it started raining shortly after we arrived), we had a delightful time wandering among the miniature houses, farms and churches. Among other things, the village has its own law firm (Argue and Twist – Solicitors), building company (A. Jerry – Builder) and the home of the Dursley family. There are also a miniature railway, airport, harbour, zoo, fairground, castle, gypsy encampment, as well as schools, a police station, a fire station, stately homes and a country club. It was rather crowded, of course, as it was the middle of the school holidays, but not unbearably so.
Our visit to Bekenscot coincided with the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, so we missed that. Had we stayed in London, we could have watched the opening of the Games on the giant screen set up in Trafalgar Square. On the days that followed, we did, more than once, find ourselves in the Square and even watched some of the Games Highlights in company with the large crowds that filled the Square (many of them Chinese).
My visit was over all too soon, but I returned to work much refreshed and able to tackle the mountain of work that covered my desk with renewed zest. Well, maybe not zest, but at least with renewed energy. It’s quite true what they say – a change is as good as a rest.