Different Stages: Or Good Things Come to Those Who Bake (Apparently)

Musical theatre is not for everyone, but I confess a weakness for it. Possibly this was inherited from my Mother’s love of film musicals (what you are marinated in as a child does seem to influence later likes, one way or another). Having easy access to the West End helps; and being short enough to fit into the tiny seats at the back of the balcony in the cheapest seats available also helps make it affordable (usually the train into London costs more that the theatre tickets if you can cope with a restricted view and are prepared to book well in advance). Unless you really hate the form most of the productions we’ve seen have been at least diverting for a couple of hours; most are instantly forgettable. But that’s entertainment, I could say that about many books or films. Yes, enjoyed that, but unlikely to be front of mind in a week. Then again, sometimes you get something a little more interesting, which provokes some conversation after the final curtain call and has you playing the original cast soundtrack in the car.

 The two most recent musicals we have seen could not be more different (although oddly they are connected as a young friend of ours is credited on both). The first one was the transfer from Sheffield Crucible of ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ based on the music of the musician Richard Hawley. It was about as gritty as musicals get, with loss and death as well as laughs (that’s not a spoiler as you are warned about the themes when booking!). But in the main it is love letter to Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield and the people and that is what shines through. It is also beautifully and innovatively staged and cleverly put together narratively to tell three stories in three time zones in a way that connects them satisfyingly like a good whodunnit. We thought it was brilliant and well worth its standing ovation from the packed National Theatre audience. It’s finished now, but its too good not to get a staging again somewhere so catch it if you can.

 Still going on at the time of writing, although possibly a more acquired taste (pun intended) is The Great British Bakeoff: The Musical. I will admit that when this was announced I was a little skeptical. The Lovely Wife had somehow managed to get me addicted to the TV show (normally I hate these things) but I did not think it was something that cried out for musical. And yet; the reason that GBBO is not as excruciatingly embarrassing to watch as some of its ilk is that it is unashamedly, joyously positive. Everyone is trying their best, there is no attempt to make anyone look a fool and as each series progresses the camaraderie on screen means you end up rooting for everyone. And this is basically what the musical version has captured; they have sat down and written down every Bakeoff cliché and distilled the basic DNA of the TV show, and then dramatized it – albeit in caricature. It works to some extent although it is no classic. The songs are only variably catchy (and often extremely corny), and the production uses every trick in the book to manipulate your emotions, often in a completely unsubtle way – for example, a song about the sadness of childlessness is immediately followed (just in case you are not already suffering from damp eyes) by another character talking to their (generic stage school acted, just the right side of annoying thankfully!) cute ‘daughter’ about how much they both miss the now dead mother – but the cast are likeable and are treating it seriously and deserve respect for that. In the end you know where it is all going to pan out but you do not really care, because its all about wish fulfilment and a statement of humanity as you wish it was, but know it isn’t. If ‘Standing’ is a hymn to the resilience of real people through hardship and heartache, the GBBO musical is fantasy escapism for a world that can only exist within a tent (or in this case the theatre stage) and when a lot of the auditorium got to their feet to applaud and cheer, I think it was saying thanks for making them feel good for a few hours rather than recognition of quality. And that is just fine to me. Sometimes it is good to have something to chew on, sometimes you just want to go for the cake. I think a balanced diet can be heartily recommended.


Rest in Peace, Rat

So, in the last few weeks there has been some excitement and concern with an unwelcome visitor. We are about a street away from a large primary school which itself backs onto a disused railway line. As well as the people and bird life that use that right of way inevitably there are rats. In fact, this year I’ve seen them extremely regularly as they seem to have developed a sense of boldness that I would have said came from the lack of human traffic during the pandemic lockdowns, had it not been that the footfall on this track had been so high with daily exercise takers that the Lovely Wife had largely avoided it for the best part of two years in the interests of social distancing. Anyway, there is plenty of cover for these rodents and ample food, as even if people did not litter as much as they do, I expect around the primary school bins there are plenty of picking, and the main risk might be to end up as lunch from the urban foxes (although I suspect they are also keener to scavenge as it is a lot less effort).

 But normally we do not see rats in gardens or in out street. Usually, the only grey furry pest we have are the squirrels (and their insistence on digging up any bulbs I try and plant in the garden, but that is a moan for another day). But, as anyone who has read any of these rambles will know, we’re avid bird feeders, and this means that non intended guest might decide to partake at the table. There has only been a problem once in the twenty-so years we have been here when a pair of rats nested under a neighbors decking – which itself was not a problem until they were joined by their multiple offspring. In the end, our neighbors at the time had the pest control out and the rats were poisoned with warfarin. The next day I found one of the adults in the garden, still alive but obviously in some suffering. Naively I assumed it would be dead soon and left it, intending to clear it into a bin later. When, two hours later I returned to find it still (just) alive I realised just how unpleasant a death this was and finished it off with a shovel. Anybody who knows me will realize that even as a mercy, I did not find this easy.

 So, when a large rat started appearing recently and eating under the bird feeders, I could see history repeating itself. Indeed, when startled the rat vanished exactly where its forbears had some years ago. But right from the start I was a little suspicious. Although it was a large rat, it did not look in the best of condition – almost mangy in appearance. And I am used to rats heading for cover with assurance and at pace – and this one seemed slow and almost uncertain about where cover was.

 Over the next few days, the rat was seen in several gardens and one of our neighbors indicated they were calling in the pest control. I had flashbacks to the previous occasion’s horror and was not looking forward to a repeat performance.

 The weather was very cold last week with some snow and sleet, and I did not see the rat much. Then the day when the pest control was due to visit arrived. The next day, the weather had improved, and the snow gone so with some trepidation and a feeling that history was going to repeat itself I scoured the garden. The dead rat – for this time it was definitely dead – was easy enough to find and was duly escorted in its impromptu shroud (an old Dixons bag – remember them?) to the refuse bin.

 I was glad I’d not had to deliver the coup de grâce this time, but still felt a little sad. Most wild animals we seem able to tolerate in our local vicinity, but the poor old rat is always going to be exterminated if it gets too close. Even people who normally would be extremely tolerant and generous towards wildlife feel the need to draw the line at this particular rodent. And I do not think this will ever change. And to be clear, I am not judging others here as I think I’d also probably get the pest control in like everyone else, while feeling bad about it at the same time.

 But this time there was a twist. I found out a few days later that the pest control folks had not come out after all, because of the harsh weather. So, the rat had come to die in our garden, and died of natural causes – disease, old age or both, most likely. Suddenly my earlier suspicions on its condition made sense and while I do not want to advertise my garden as a place old rats can come to have a final meal and wait for the Death of Rats* to pick them up, this one made me feel just a little bit better that at least this one left the word peacefully.

*Fellow Terry Pratchett lovers will of course know him also as ‘The Grim Squeaker’

Techno Ballet

I never really thought that I’d come out of a ballet performance with a head full of ideas and the need to talk them out with the Lovely Wife over some drinks, but that was last Saturday. Even more so, the ballet was one I had seen performed several times, one that usually I would have described as being slight, sweet and a bit silly and mercifully short.

 Let me clarify – I never went to see a ballet before being married to the Lovely Wife, and largely we started going because she loves dance and form. I’ve since become a bit of a convert as what the dancers can do on stage is extremely impressive – I am hugely impressed by the combination of strength and grace that is needed and the patterns formed on stage are something beautiful to behold. But most ballets don’t have anything to engage you emotionally beyond the beauty of the spectacle and some are ridiculously long – e.g., The Sleeping Beauty, where the last act is just a series of dances where all the wedding guests get to dance – at least once – with at every other guest long after the ‘plot’ has long since been resolved. I was bored stiff by the time it finished and the experience wasn’t improved when I found out that the version, we had seen was the short version, over an hour shorter than the original which is over 4 hours long.

 So, the ballet last Saturday was Copelia. Usually is a period piece where a somewhat sinister doll maker makes the eponymous doll which bewitches the somewhat useless boyfriend of the female principal, who later must pretend to be the doll come to life to hoodwink the Doll maker and rescue the aforementioned pathetic paramour for the inevitable if a little unrealistic happy ending. But it has its laughs and allows for plenty of folk dances to fill in the meagre plot.

But this version was very, very different. It is a production by Scottish Ballet that was on a brief visit (only 4 performances) at Saddler’s Wells in North London. Instead of dolls we are looking NuLife Corporation, a shady technology company dealing in AI and intent on creating a ‘better than life’ range of automatons under the overpowering influence of its technically brilliant – and massively egotistical – CEO, the dance artist dressed all in black and a weird mixture of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk; our heroine is the reporter who is there to get an exclusive interview and gets far more than she bargained for, while accompanied by her sweet but ineffectual fiancé.

 I have to say, that it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. The dancing was superb and expressive (in particular the initial pas a deux between our heroine and her lover, where the fact they were wearing business attire somehow made the dancing much more intimate in tone, beautifully establishing their romantic bond); the designs simple and stark and mixed clever set design with integrated live and recorded film sequences giving a feel of a huge research facility beyond the limitations of the stage itself and best of all it was an intense 80 minutes or so, straight through and hardly giving you a chance to catch breath. The updating of the story worked well and felt very current, albeit sometimes a little obvious (e.g., the Musk references).

 But it is also a joy to see a strong female lead in a ballet that you can actually care about and root for – as well as enjoying the beauty of the dancing. I was not expecting a tense and satisfying SF adventure and the experience was all the better for it.

 I cannot recommend this production enough, and if it comes anywhere near you, please go – and it would be a great production to take someone to who has never seen a ballet or thinks they wouldn’t like it – because there is so much more to enjoy. Hopefully there will be a filmed version to enjoy at some point because I would happily watch this again and again – and I never thought I would every react that way to a ballet.

The ballet in question:


Back to Blog, with Black Caps

Well, on the day that septuagenarian Ken Bruce bows out from Radio 2 here in the UK before wandering off to Greatest Hits Radio where he won’t be forced to play any music released after 1999, here I am back on the blog for the first time in about 4 years. It is a surprise really to me as I look in retrospect as during the pandemic, I would have thought it the perfect time to waffle along on the internet about whatever comes to mind that week since we were all staying in as much as we could; but apparently not. I had to wait until things are – more or less – back to pre-COVID busy levels – or indeed higher – to start off again. And not for any deep reason, although I think recent (thankfully largely unrealised) concerns about my personal health may have given me pause for thought again about what I want to do with my life and what I enjoy – and, yes, one of those things is pontificating on what has distracted me from the words like ‘Regulation’, ‘Priorities’ and ‘European Greed Deal’ which is pretty much my work life at the moment.

 So, what has been exciting me recently? Spring, mostly. The frogs have started to breed in the pond although I think they have again gone to early as the forecast suggests more frosts to come and will probably kill all the spawn for the third year running (I even tried covering the pond overnight to try and protect them but to no avail). Meanwhile, the bird related excitement in our garden has been the consistent presence of a Jay. This is such a beautiful bird species and hilarious to watch the standoff between it with the Grey Squirrels – the bushy tailed rats are not the brightest but even they understand that the wily pink and blue corvid is carefully noting where it’s caching the food ready to steal it at the first opportunity and does its best to scare it off. With truly negligible effect of course, as the Jay has an excellent memory so once it has seen where the cache is, it just has to wait for the squirrel to leave and pop back later to steal and re-cache somewhere else. They are rather good at this too; I remember what one Jay deliberately trying to hoodwink another one by pretending to cache its goodies in one place and then hiding them elsewhere once the other bird was not looking. Sneaky.

 The big excitement this winter has been a small bird, a Black Cap, which is a small warbler. In a perfect case of misogynism, only the male has a dark black ‘cap’ on the top of his head – the female has a chestnut/brown top. The male turned up early in the winter and seems to be visiting the feeders every day, several times a day – pretty much any opportunity he gets when the larger birds (especially a raucous mob of starlings who alternate pecking the fat balls with pecking each other’s heads – they are probably siblings from a late brood last year we suspect) are absent. We’ve also had a female, which is exciting, although not as frequently as the male, although to be fair he is becoming dangerously bold.

The interest in a little bird like this may not be obvious. However, we have not had a black cap in the garden for years and at this time of year it is an occurrence that the British Trust for Ornithology wants you to report (duly done, of course). Because it should not be here at the moment – should instead be in parts of Germany or Spain, where historically they migrate to during our winter and return to us a summer visitor. Increasingly, though, they are hanging around and not bothering to migrate which is why the BTO is particularly interested in this species as it one that seems to be in transition from being a summer visitor to being resident. As with most animal behaviour, the reasons are probably a mixture of things, but one of them is climate change and the mild winters we have had in the South of England recently; also thanks to suckers like me, there is ample food available all year round on multiple feeders, and possibly even a recent increase in recent years due to more people feeding during the pandemic and the relative quiet of urban areas when we not able to move around – while that has gone, I suspect some of our wildlife – once they have tasted the good life – maybe trying to put up with the increase in noise and human traffic.

 Anyway, we are delighted with our (currently still) unusual winter guest and hope he avoids late frosts, the local sparrowhawk (we might return to him in future weeks) and any cats that slip through my spited defence of my garden territory (I’m winning – the local toms transit but rarely dare to hang around long in case the giant lumbering bipedal cat launches itself out of the patio doors hissing and bearing its fangs… Ahem, I do wonder what our long suffering neighbours make of that). And if he should get together with a young lady to generate a few baby black caps this summer we’ll be even more delighted. And ready to feed them next winter should they also decide to stay.

 I probably should order more fat balls now.




Conversation Pieces

There is something I think quite special about art that works on different levels, and/or says different things to different people. This goes for older artforms – people are often affected in different ways when looking at the same picture or sculpture or listening to the same music. Some of the best movies I have seen in recent years were equally accessible to children and to adults (although sometimes we might laugh or cry at different times, which can be both embarrassing and hilarious). I’m not saying it is a great movie, but the gag in the Lego Batman movie about previous big screen incarnations raised guffaws from yours truly and one other bloke in the  cinema but sailed over the heads of the mostly pre-teen audience (one of those ‘oh dear, we seem to have forgotten the children again’ moments as I and the Lovely Wife like to refer to them).

Sometimes I mistake the effect that something might have. I have several things I am passionate about that I feel I pretty much foist on my long-suffering Lovely Wife. Certain gigs. Making her watch certain TV series that are important to me and I want to share with her, so I can have a proper conversation about them. I try and keep the quality fairly high if possible. I’m not going to make her watch Highlander 2: The Quickening. Frankly, no one should have that horror inflicted on them (indeed, I judge that terrible piece of misjudged celluloid to be the only movie I have considered walking out of, and in that case, it has had plenty of competition over the years).

But, sometimes I’m wrong about what she thinks.

Last night we had the joy of attending a performance at the Barbican in London featuring the author Neil Gaiman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – which will go out on Radio 3 and Radio 4 before Christmas. ‘Playing in the Dark’ was a mixture of readings from Gaiman’s writing and short accompanying pieces from the orchestra, mostly crowd pleasers like Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. It was a packed house, and the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves, as the Lovely Wife and I tried to work out what some of the more unusual instruments were (I guessed a Contrabassoon, but what I know about instruments would not fill the back of a postage stamp, I having failed abjectly to even manage the recorder at school).

Now, I have dragged the Lovely Wife along to several Gaiman related events and always assumed that she was humouring me. It turns out she enjoys his work too – and he is pretty mesmeric when reading from his own material. But maybe we get different things. One of the readings was the story ‘The Man who forgot Ray Bradbury’ a story that Neil wrote for Ray himself to be read at his bed side when he was 91. For me it is a story full of references to Bradbury’s eclectic SF output, and the fun was spotting them. For the Lovely Wife – who has not read these books – it was the emotion in the story, the passion and frustration of someone who may be suffering from dementia but resolutely fighting it with intelligence and humour. Basically, it is a damn fine piece of writing and for me, like the best of any art, it leaves you with much to talk about afterwards. Art can make you laugh, cry, offend you or make feel like a high-flying bird, but if it has any worth it must impact you somehow. And the difference that might be felt in that impact gives us something else to talk about (because even for Brits chatting about the weather does get old sometimes)

A Rose By Any Other Name

London is full of surprises. Some of them are even nice ones, that can make you smile or remind you of something you had forgotten. One such surprise was happened upon by the Lovely Wife and I a few weeks ago as we were trying not to walk into tourists on a busy South Bank near London Bridge. As we moved along, we were confronted by a board at the entrance to a side street leading away from the river. It informed us that the Rose theatre was open for visiting, with a helpful arrow inviting us to leave the crowds behind and explore what intrigue might be lying just around the corner.

The fact it claimed ‘free entry’ was also a pull, obviously. That never hurts.

It took a few moments to locate a rather ordinary doorway into an ugly late 1980s building (was not looking too enticing, free or not). We were ushered in by some friendly older volunteer types (I feel I can say that as I am on at Wrest Park, and there is a definite kind of person and attitude that means you are prepared to give up hours of your time for something you are passionate about). And there, in the semi darkness, under water and seen through thick glass, was the – foundations of – the Rose theatre.

It dates from 1587 and was one of handful of purpose-built theatres from that time (predating the original Globe for example by some years). For the 15 or so years it was active it was hugely popular and home to both plays by Shakespeare and in particular Christopher Marlowe; but by 1606 it had vanished. Then in 1989 the foundations were discovered during redevelopment of the area. Importantly, what was uncovered turned out to be more extensive and better preserved then people had thought, and the tide turned from excavation and subsequent destruction to whether the remains could and should be preserved.

It was as we were listening to the story and subsequent talks on the site and Elizabethan dress (apparently, they have a revolving series of talk topics) that we both remembered the kerfuffle around the remains and the efforts to save them (which I, certainly, had forgotten about). As well as the archaeologists, this campaign was spearheaded by the acting fraternity, with the usual suspects such as Sam Wanamaker, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen joined by an elderly Lawrence Olivier – whose impassioned speech asking for the remains to be saved turned out to be his final public ‘performance’. The campaign, as we could see in front of us, was eventually successful and the remains are there to see in a specially constructed basement.

The trust that looks after the site hope that the site can be improved for visitors or even further excavations can happen in the future. I hope so too. Certainly, if you happen to be near London Bridge on a Saturday afternoon, look out for it. It is a little overlooked gem.

After all, it’s free.


Sing-a-Long in Protest

The Lovely Wife and I spent a very interesting Sunday evening at the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre recently – well, I say The Globe, but the ‘performance’ was in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, the intimate internal space, lit by candles. It is a lovely little theatre that makes you feel right in the middle of whatever performance and indeed if you are seated in the ‘Pit’ then you may well be dragged into the play.

We were there for something a bit different this time, however, an evening hat was billed as ‘Songs for the People’. It was a mixture of folk music and accompanying history from the 1400s to the present day, presented by Steve Knightley (who is half of the folk group Show of Hands) and the historian and presenter Michael Wood.

I admit that it was Wood’s involvement that interested me – I was obsessed by ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander The Great’ when much younger, a series that was more real life drama than documentary and something which showed Wood’s ability to drag you into the story – whatever it is – by enthusiasm and force of personality. I’m pleased to say that at 71 he has not lost any of that ability. Add talented musicians and a fair amount of banter (mostly along the lines of ‘Michael – we do the singing, you stick to the history, mate’ variety) and a couple of hours flew past in a whistle stop tour of the importance of song in protest and times of struggle.

Topics covered included the Black Death; the English (or as was pointed out more accurately the British) Civil War, the Tolpuddle Martyrs,  Peterloo Massacre, Chartists, Suffragettes and more with appropriate readings, illustrative songs of the period and some facts that had the audience gasping in disbelief – for example that some of those supporting the Chartist movement in the 1830s were actually convicted of Treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – in the 1830s! (eventually commuted to Transportation). Or that in the Civil War the loss of life in Britain, proportional to the population at the time, was greater than in the 1914-18 war.

Through the medium of song people have supported each other, made their needs clear and drew attention to inequality and injustice, with varying degrees of success. As was pointed out, some songs and melodies have been so powerful that they have been recycled, sometimes hundreds of years apart, when the same themes re-occur and people feel the need to say something, to give protest a voice (for example in relation to anti-war songs). Folk today continues to fly the flag, although mass singing is probably now more limited to football grounds (again, many of the tunes used on the terraces around the country are based on old folk tunes). This is because that whatever the lyrics, the songs are easy to sing. One of the most enjoyable parts of the evening was the audience joining in, sometimes invited, sometimes by itself, because  it kind of felt right to do so. Folk is at its best in a mass singalong and Michael Wood pointed out that it brings people together and, in a time of conflict and disagreement – and where inequality and lack of justice is just as prevalent as ever – maybe it is time that we all joined a song of reconciliation and hope; that just might help make things better.

Song writing friends – I know there are a few of you – go and write something special. We need it, I think.

How People Remembered

There is nothing like being surrounded by dead people to make you think about death and people’s attitude to it, and how that attitude had changed over the centuries. As well as volunteering for English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire I also am part of a small number of volunteers that help people interpret the De Grey Mausoleum in Flitton, a village about a mile and half from Wrest, the home of the De Greys until 1917 (I am pretty certain I’ve blogged about this before but I’m getting old and therefore will inevitably repeat myself). In the 1600s the church a Flitton was the local Parish church so when the 7th Earl of Kent decided to create a mausoleum for the family it was added to the North side of the chancel.

Family mausolea of this period are an odd beast. Unlike a monument in a church aisle the mausoleum is for the family only; monuments in it a reminder to descendants of where they have come from and sending various additional messages that change over the years as styles and attitudes change. The De Grey Mausoleum is one of the biggest in England and has monuments from the early 1600s through to the last in 1859. It was massively increased by Henry, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent – more on him later – and one of things I enjoy is being able to show people how the monuments change over time.

The earliest monuments hang over from the Medieval view of reminding people they are mortal, and death comes to us all, no matter how important you are. It is adorned with skulls and almost in a black comic manner, a colourful hourglass with wings – time flying, indeed. Next to this chest tomb is another from the late 1600s – a man and a woman’s effigy lying in state but now carved with more elegance and the shock tactics have been dropped in the 5o years between them.

When the Duke of Kent quadrupled the size of the Mausoleum he was at the height of his power, having been Lord Chamberlain and having elevated the family to a Dukedom. His monument is massive and of the highest quality, an Eighteenth-century hymn to achievement. He lies full sized reclining, dressed as a Roman general. Now it is not so much about death as about what was achieved in life.

Unfortunately for Henry and the De Greys, the one thing he could not achieve was a legacy. All his children pre-deceased him and with no male heir the Dukedom passed back to the Crown (the current Duke of Kent being a member of the Royal family is a regular source of confusion for visitors, who assume there must be some Royal connection).  The monuments to his children in my eyes become smaller and speak more of the sadness of a powerful man facing the inevitability that there was nothing he could do to save his family. In the end, he secures the title of Marchioness for his remaining descendant, his granddaughter Jemima.

The monuments to her and her two daughters, now late 1700s and creeping into the Nineteenth Century are best described as modest and elegant; these are still monuments to powerful and wealthy people, but as they sit on the wall opposite the huge monument to Henry, they almost seem a little embarrassed by the bombastic excess.

My favourite monuments are the last ones installed before the family moved away and stopped using the mausoleum. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey, inherited the Wrest Estate from his aunt and set about designing his own house to replace the old one for himself and his Countess Henrietta. Henrietta, who died first, is seen being carried up to heaven by an angel as Thomas stands among other mourners, his head in his hands. To the left, he himself lies in state, full size and realistically carved, looking as though he might just get up and walk away at any time (it is a source of some amusement that we have to put an old bed sheet over Thomas when we lock up to prevent his effigy being degraded by the droppings of resident bats).

Both monuments drip with Victorian Romanticism, that death is merely sleep until the Resurrection, and anyway we’ll be united with our loved ones in heaven.

The De Grey Mausoleum is open 2-4pm the first Sunday of the month through the Summer and on occasional Wednesdays, bets to check the website https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/de-grey-mausoleum-flitton/ Admission is free.


Seeing Things (Or Not)

I have kind of slipped out of the habit of rambling at the internet each week, so I thought I would try and pick it up again, at least when I have something I think may be vaguely interesting to say/talk about/recommend. We will see how it goes. Certainly, summer holidays are a good time for projects for us, as not having kids means that these weeks can be quite quiet. Although for some reason this year has not been quite the respite we might have hoped for after the events and emotions of last year.

The Lovely Wife and I are quite partial to the hidden and the quirky and one of the places I have wanted to visit for several years is Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields. Dennis Severs was an artist who passed away in 1999.  His home had been 18 Folgate Street, a four floored Eighteenth century town house in East London (I was very amused that it is around the corner from Norton Folgate which always makes me think of one of my favourite Madness albums – for good reason, as this is their patch). Over the years he was living there he gradually constructed his house into an art installation that was meant to evoke the life of a family of Huguenot weavers across the centuries from the Eighteenth to early Twentieth Century. It is not a museum, and it there is very little explanation, deliberately so. The staff who let us in give a brief introduction and then the rest of the visit of 45 minutes or so is carried out in silence, with the occasional paper note reminding you to ‘experience’ the house through look (the whole place is largely candlelit) and through smells and noises. It is quite an odd experience and one to chalk down to you probably get out of it what you put into it, indeed the paper notes repeatedly claim that the motto of the place is ‘You either see it, or you don’t’. As most of the promotional literature indicates it is meant to feel that the occupants of the room you have just walked into have left moments before, leaving you to imagine what was going on before you arrived through the ‘clues’ they have left behind. I found it quite odd at first, but as you go on you start to get the hang of it, for example walking into a room and just sniffing the air and listening to the aural cues before looking.

Not for everyone, but for those who like the offbeat, probably worth a look.

Additionally, Spitalfields was a bit of a revelation. In my head the area had a poor reputation and certainly in some periods has been a genuine slum. Now, Spitalfields Old market is filled with up market crafts, the buildings occupied with up market restaurant chains and hipster attracting bars. That might not sound too attractive but on the Monday evening we were there the place was buzzing and siting outside at a bar with a nice cold beer made for ample enjoyable people watching opportunities 5 minutes from Liverpool Street station. As with the Kings Cross area, this part of East London has been revitalised and had for me a very particular look, with the old Eighteenth century terraces, pubs and enamel fronted pie and fish shops set against a skyline of the business district (the Gherkin looms seemingly at the end of one of the main streets in a dramatic fashion). Two London worlds that are very different but neighbours and the main connection between them being the flow of people between them.

Links for those that might be interested, Dennis Severs House https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/, Spitalfields Old Market https://oldspitalfieldsmarket.com/ and we ate at Galvin La Chapelle next to the market – expensive, but the venue, food and staff were lovely https://galvinrestaurants.com/restaurant/galvin-la-chapelle-the-city-michelin-star/ (oh, and apparently despite the name, which is actually connected to a vineyard they own, the restaurant is in a building that had been part of a hospital – Spitalfields apparent gets its name from (Ho)spital – that was later used as a girl’s school).

Here Comes The Sun, And It’s Mostly Alright

Normally an early morning run is a good experience – heaven knows I need the exercise – but for a large chunk of the year it is perhaps more of a struggle in the dark, the damp and the cold. From this time of the year for a few months though it can be an altogether happier experience – it’s light early for a start, and on good spring days like today you can have the best of both world’s – glorious bright sun and blue skies but still cool enough that overheating in that glow of the great burning orb in the sky.

There are other benefits to it being ‘nice out’ (as we might say in parts of the North). The most important of these for me is that, at least while the oncoming sun is still a bit of a novelty, so many people suddenly start smiling and treating their fellow human beings just a tiny little bit better. Certainly, that was what I observed this morning. I’m a creature that likes his routine do I will run the same routes often at similar times, so you learn to expect certain things. However, this morning people went out of there way to avoid obstructing me (maybe I am really that fat now that they think I will take up all the pavement). Drivers, normally who I expect to be completely focussed on getting to their work place and/or dropping their precious ones off at school or nursery, instead waved me across the road cheerfully. This happens to the Lovely Wife a lot (to me, not surprisingly of course), but it is not at all something I am used to. But this morning, this was the standard.

The better thing is that we all know that little kindnesses, like little cruelties, spawn more of the same. I am no different to anyone else in this respect. If someone lets me into a queue of traffic, I will be much more likely to let the next driver in as I pass on the ‘good deed’. As I ran past a lady trying to back her car out of her drive onto a busy road – her view in one direction completely blocked by an illegal parked van I felt compelled this morning to stop, go back and guide her safely out. When later in the day I was picking up my lunch in a supermarket and on overburdened old lady dropped her stick, I almost fell over myself to pick it up for her and check she was OK, before cheerfully marching back to the office, only briefly waylaid by another old lady who wanted to know the time. I can only presume she saw my previous action and assumed I was safe to approach as a clear friend of little old ladies. (The Lovely Wife will tell you that I have spent significant time helping the self esteem of little old ladies mostly in churches by patiently listening to their life stories – if I am lucky, over a cup of tea. In fact, they often have very interesting life stories…)

But of course, there is a problem here. Today, I felt happy, blessed and warmed by the sun, and wanted to pass on the love. But so many days I would have just kept running and left that driver to her own devices. I would like to think I would still be there to pick up a walking stick, but maybe I would not have noticed, and would have walked away in my own little world as someone who needed help struggled on. It is something that bothers me a lot, that I often fail the standard I expect for myself. But at least today I felt a tiny bit closer to the person I want to be in those few seconds. Thank you, Mr Blue Sky.