Week 253 – from the Tate to the Tuileries

On Monday morning I flew back to London, and in the muggy grey early afternoon I went out for another run (thankfully, not getting lost this time, although I did manage to locate a lost dog!). I met up with mum at the Penn Club, and we spent the evening visiting local haunts. ‘Ciao Bella’ was as busy, brusque and low-key as ever. It was heaving with people by 6.30pm, with no let-up for the rest of the night! I chose my favourite (and the most salty dish ever) broccoli and anchovy pasta! We went on to the Lamb pub (which, disappointingly, has removed the little doors of the wooden bar screen that you used to have to push open in order to speak to the bar staff – but otherwise it is much the same!).

On Tuesday I travelled on the bus to South Kensington, popping into the Science Museum shop first to pick up educational(!) toys for the kids. I met mum, Jo S and Sonya in the new V&A courtyard, a startlingly white swathe of ceramic tiles that swoops up at odd angles from the newly-gussied-up stone-pillared entrance screen. It was a striking space, but anachronistic, and did no favours for the grand Victorian redbrick of the old buildings.

We visited a couple of exhibitions. The first was ‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’. It was a fascinating collection of objects, nimbly demonstrating the importance of plywood in C20th industrial design. There was a wooden racing-car, wooden aeroplanes, surfboards, classic mass-produced designer chairs, flatpack housing etc. Plywood was the first super-strong, light, fully moldable material, and its invention (in the late 1800s) facilitated great leaps in all areas of industrial design (way before superior metals/plastics techniques came into play).

Some of my favourite objects included a pile of tea-chests (I remembered, age 5, going to collect some of these hefty, splintery things from a tea warehouse on a sunny afternoon, to use as packing cases when we moved house – drifts of black tea stubbornly clung to the foiled interiors). Also, a remarkable artefact – a plywood-bound book that had been written, illustrated, printed and published in the Antarctic by Shackleton’s 1907-09 exploration team. They had brought a printing press with them to give them something to do during the long dark nights! Of the many chairs, a heavy 1930s armchair, by British designer Gerald Summers, made of one very curvy piece of plywood, was my favourite.

Next we went to the jewellery gallery which is housed in an imposing large black safe of a room. Once you make it through the narrow doorway you are dazzled by glistering jewels of every size, shape and colour, made by (mainly European) craftsmen from ancient Greek through to modern times. Sadly no photography is allowed (if it was, the visitors would be a crowd of paparazzi!). A fascinating swirl of gem-stone-set rings demonstrated the amazing rainbow array of colours that precious stones can occur in – sapphires in blues, pinks, golds and sage greens, topaz in rusty red and white as well as every shade of blue etc. Other highlights were impossibly intricate filigree/enamel sprays of flowers, tiny birds with feathers of ruby, emerald and sapphire, diamond-studded bees on golden honeycomb, sinuous golden looping snake necklaces, even a snapping bejewelled skull. Most spectacular were the shimmering Russian tiaras with tiny diamond ‘tremblers’, and the simple settings of large, unusual peach or deep blue/green gemstones. It really was a feast for the eyes!

Back out in the (reluctant) sunshine, we walked up to the Serpentine Gallery to see the new summer pavilion, this year designed by Francis Kere, an architect from Burkino Faso.

He had constructed a simple circular, flat-roofed pavilion, the shape based on a traditional village meeting hall, the perforated geometrically patterned walls and roof made of wooden slats coloured indigo and golden (colours used in African wax relief textiles).

It was a calm, welcoming space, and we spent some time relaxing there, drinking coffee and taking turns to cuddle baby Effra.

In the afternoon we caught the bus a few stops down the road to the new Design Museum, which is housed in the old Commonwealth Institute. The original building, with its crazing plunging concrete and glass 1960s roofline, is barely visible from the road now, hidden as it is by a wall of bland new tower blocks, but once inside the museum you can admire the vertiginous angles by looking up from the 4-storey atrium.

We had come to see an exhibition entitled ‘Breathing Colour’. Hella Jongerius, the Dutch designer who devised it, explained it as ‘an installation-based exhibition that…[explores] how colours breathe with light. Through a series of phenomenological studies and experiences, the exhibition makes us question colour…’.

She illustrated the colour wheel with a beautiful ring of glazed ceramic vases, and themed the rest of the display around times of the day. ‘Morning’ comprised strings of delicate blocks of translucent resins and loosely-woven textiles, ‘Noon’ utilised a flock of pale blue/grey multi-faceted ‘colour catchers’ (see picture) which, when placed on brightly coloured pieces of card and lit from the side, caught all the subtle gradations of colour mixes and shadow. These were particularly intriguing, after concentrating for a while, you really could see a myriad of subtly different colours. Also in this section was a light box full of small mono-coloured boxes which dramatically changed colour (from the palest to the darkest hues) depending on the hue of the light.

There was also a ‘Night’ room, the walls painted with the very deepest shades of every colour – instead of using carbon, Jongerius had developed 16 shades of black using ‘handcrafted pigments including ultramarine blue, ultramarine green, cobalt green, natural umber, ruby red and magenta.’ At first glimpse, in the dim light, they all appeared black, but after your eyes had adjusted, the different shades glowed through.

Mum and I went down to the South Bank as we fancied an al fresco evening meal on the river bank (as soon as we sat down, the heavens opened, but happily we were under a very large parasol so remained dry!). We enjoyed a tasty meal at Giraffe – the dessert of cinnamon banana waffles was particularly memorable!

I then caught a very slow train out to Kingston, and joined Di and Andy for an unlikely night of polished Big Band jazz performed by a scratch band of accomplished London musicians, in the brightly-lit atmosphere-less back room of a pub. Di and Andy go to the gig regularly, and told me that they’d rarely seen the same musicians more than once! Most of the (small) audience were at least twice the age of the musicians, but they were very appreciative!

On Wednesday mum, Jo, Sonya and I met up at the Photographers Gallery. Their entire gallery space had been devoted to ‘Cathedral of the Pines’, a new series of images by the American photographer Gregory Crewdson. In the early 2010s, he retreated to a small woodland village in western Massachusetts. That location, and members of the local community inspired, and became the focus of his latest series of bleakly eerie, hyper-real images.

Most of the images feature a dishevelled, semi-clad female, staring off into space, whilst inside a chilly (often snow-lit) brown 1970s interior, or amongst a cheerless, sunless, forest of scarred pine-trunks. There is the sense of something awful just about to happen (or perhaps it has already happened) – they are always moments in-between. They look like stills from a David Lynch movie. And they are as meticulously designed/staged as a film shoot. For every shot Crewdson employs vast amounts of equipment, and a large team of skilled specialists.

I found the interior shots most atmospheric – a mother and daughter curled up on a sofa, the french window ajar, letting in a drift of snow, a frozen dusk lake shimmering through the window. I also liked an outside-in view of an elderly couple, she at the sink, he eating his meal at the table, the mouldering fruit trees outside dropping startlingly dark tawny-red crab apples.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the Nordic Bakery – strong coffee, herring and egg on rye bread, Karelian pies, and, of course, cinnamon buns (fresh and still warm from the oven!) before doing some Oxford Street shopping, and then, sadly mum had to head home.

I popped in to the National Gallery where I was happy to find that they had re-opened the Impressionist/Post-Impressionist galleries (closed during my last visit). I spent some time with my favourite Monets and Gauguins. Two gloriously-coloured newly acquired pieces by Derain and Matisse also caught my eye. I went to see Chris Ofili’s new tapestry (made by the Edinburgh Tapestry Workshop), which was, perhaps more admirable for its craftsmanship than its art. Outside, in Trafalgar Square, David Shrigley’s ‘Thumbs up’ made its unsubtle comment about the state of the nation!

I caught up with Jules over an after-work pint in a pub near her new Waterloo studio, then Jo and I headed up to the Soho Theatre to see a new theatre piece by young British playwright Vicky Jones (of ‘Fleabag’ fame). It was a sharply-dialogued, witty, snapshot of a bright 30-something’s chaotic, impermanent life and love-life. Dee has recently moved from her Swansea home to London. Working as an intern for a media company, living in a squalid bedsit (very well realised on the tiny stage!), co-ordinating a string of unsatisfactory boyfriends (the anxious but controlling hipster, the practical but dull Welsh ex, the charmingly unreliable 18-year-old son of the boss, the older Nigel-Farage-alike fetishist etc.), she is struggling to make anything of her life.

After the show Jo and I ventured in to the Korean dessert cafe over the road, where (on a chilly evening, it wasn’t well advised!) we ate huge bowls of colourful shaved ice with red beans and exotic fruit!

On a beautiful soft, mild, autumnal Thursday, I travelled over to Richmond to meet up with Nye, Madi and 2-year-old Zya. Jo and Val also joined us and we went for a walk in Richmond Park.

We climbed the hill up to Pembroke House and had lunch on the elegant terrace looking out over parkland and the pretty old cottages and villas of Richmond village. The only thing marring it was a crow, who came and grabbed a mouthful of my crayfish sandwich!

Jo had to head home afterwards, but Nye, Madi, Zya (who walked a long way on her 2-year-old legs), Val and I went on a gentle afternoon stroll through the oak, ash and sweet chestnut woodlands, towards the lakes and meadows at the heart of the park.

We picked blackberries and admired mushrooms and toadstools (see picture!), and enjoyed the smells of bracken and summer grasses. We caught up on several years worth of news and gossip – I love a long walk for the opportunities of leisurely conversation it affords!

In a small copse we came across a resting herd of deer. Most of them were lying down, lazily munching the surrounding grass, but a few of the young bucks were practising their wrestling, horns locked in a friendly scuffle.

After all that green quiet and space, it was hard to get the energy up to join the rush-hour bustle, but it was very exciting to be heading to a gamelan rehearsal with Nye and Val! We met the rest of the gamelan crew (no Andy, sadly, as he was in Kenya), at SOAS, and crashed out way through what Semar Pegulingan repertoire we could recall. Emily had baked us a box of gold-sprinkled salted chocolate cookies which gave us the energy for a spirited rendition of ‘Jaya Prana’. We went for a drink afterwards at the Euston Tap. They had no lager – it was just like being in Melbourne (I had to resort to a glass of dodgy red wine)!

On Friday (after a bus journey that took me past the sad ruins of the Battersea power station) I met up with Debbie at the Tate Modern. We went to see the Giacometti exhibition, a survey of his career, focussing mainly on his sculpture. The first room was wonderful – it was a crowd of his sculpted heads, some (the earlier pieces) smooth, three-dimensional and naturalistic, some in knobbly bronze, others just simple terracotta slabs, the features scratched in. He often sculpted his friends and family and you could recognise a few of them captured in early, then later life. The second room was devoted to his more abstract, surreal, sculptures. I liked his spiky piece ‘Objet désagréable à jeter’ [disagreeable object to throw away!] and the bleakly symbolic kinetic sculpture ‘Man, Woman and Child’, where the wedge/sail-like man can spin in any direction, the open-armed ‘mother’ can only dodge from side-to-side, and the ball-bearing ‘child’ is stuck in a groove.

Later rooms were devoted to his more familiar works, the emaciated elongated plaster and bronze figures anchored by heavy wedge-shaped feet. The precursors to these were a series of startlingly tiny heads and figures that he made during WW2. I liked the figures that seemed to be captured in mid-stride (how he made them balance was impressive!), and the loping dog.

Towards the end of the exhibition were a couple of rooms of his portraits – and they were even more intense than the sculptures, whilst also being like two-dimensional representations of the sculptures, all thickly layered frantic narrow daubs of white and grey paint on gloomy brown backgrounds.

Sonya and Effra joined us for a trip up in the lift to the viewing platform at the top of the Tate’s Switch House extension, where we gazed over the ugly changing London skyline, and into the empty flats of the property investors in the neighbouring speculative glass towers (they are campaigning to get the viewing platform closed for their ‘privacy’ – we didn’t spot a single person actually living there!). We had a quick look at Bruce Naumann’s neons and his still uncomfortable video pieces, then went out for lunch at the ‘healthy fast food’ joint Leon’s. It was fast, and it was very tasty too!

We walked through the back streets of Bermondsey to the White Cube Gallery, which was presenting ‘Dreamers Awake’, a fascinating selection of surrealist/post-surrealist works by 50 women artists active from the 1930s to the present day. I enjoyed a series of collaborative works about the female body by Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin (see picture), and the photos of Claude Cahun (who explored gender roles), and Francesca Woodman’s beautiful photographs of mysterious nudes in empty buildings.

Helen Chadwick’s ‘I thee wed’ – five knobbly cast gherkin-digits, each wearing an animal fur ring, was very striking! As was Linder’s ‘It’s the buzz, cock’ a powerful protest poster of a sexy nude with an iron instead of a head. Most gory was Kelly Akashi’s ‘Life Forms’ (pictured with Debbie’s London skyline-decorated nails!). It was also fascinating to see paintings by the woman associated with the 1930s surrealist movement – Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Leonor Fini.

Debbie and I then made our (painfully slow, due to general rush-hour transport failures) way over to South Kensington. She had secured us complimentary BBC tickets for the evening’s prom at the Royal Albert Hall, a performance by the Filarmonica della Scala, conducted by Riccardo Chilly (the picture is blurry but it conveys something of the atmosphere!). We had fabulous seats, very close to the orchestra, and slightly to one side so we could watch the interaction between conductor and players, and enjoy the swaying movements of the charismatic violin soloist (Leonidas Kavakos) who was performing Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major. It’s a sumptuous piece of music, featuring long lyrical melodies in both violin and wind section in the earlier movements and a final lively Hungarian ‘gypsy’ dance Rondo. I’m afraid to say we didn’t stay for the second half of the concert (Respighi) but enjoyed the rest of the warm summers evening eating fresh sourdough pizzas (anchovies and capers – my favourite!) at a nearby pizzeria.

At 4.30am the following morning I was in a taxi speeding through the night-empty London streets to Kings Cross, where I caught an early train to Paris. I arrived at 9.30am at the Gare du Nord and Lizzie was there to meet me (she’d just caught a train from Reims).

It was already a hot morning (temperatures hovered around 30 degrees for the 4 days we were in Paris) and we strolled through the city, stopping off for coffee and croissants, passing through the gardens of the Grand Palais and the courtyard of the Louvre, crossing the Seine and peeking in the windows of the smart August-shut boutiques and tantalising patisseries/chocolatiers of St-Germain-des-Pres.

Our hotel (a favourite, Neil and I have stayed there before) was just across the road from the Jardin de Luxembourg. We were upgraded to a surprisingly spacious (if view-less) room on a perfectly silent upper floor.

We bought picnic food from the local mini-supermarket (beautiful honey and ash-flavoured goats cheeses, fresh baguettes, the most fragrantly sweet sugar plums) and headed to the Jardin de Luxembourg where we pulled up a couple of the sage-green metal chairs (all the parks are full of these chairs, which you can place anywhere apart from on the grass – no-one is allowed on the grass in Parisian parks!).

The flower beds were a great verdant eruption of reds, oranges and purples. In the shadier corners of the gardens elderly men were playing petanque, and children rode on little ponies.

In the afternoon we wended our way back to the river. The wonderful gargoyles – leering fantastical creatures – jutting from the roof of the Church of St Severin stopped us in our tracks and we went inside to explore. The church was founded in the C13th, with new sections added in the C14th and C15th, in a fairly random way, so it is a rambling asymmetrical structure.

There were so many fascinating details, such as the coiled C15th ‘palm tree’ columns holding up the complex stone vaulted roof, and a suite of gloriously vivid ‘modern’ (1970s) abstract stained glass windows.

As we (and other tourists) wandered around gawping, a beautiful Parisian couple was getting married – we heard them say their vows, it was very romantic! Their congregation was extremely well dressed. Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time admiring the Parisian chic – men, women and children all looked so graceful, in their muted colours, crisp pressed linens and white shirts, and well-cut summer frocks. No one (not even the kids) wore a t-shirt or trainers – these clothes were strictly the province of the easily-spottable tourists!

We walked over to the Ile de la Cite where we discovered all the tourists milling about outside Notre-Dame. Round the corner, we were surprised to find that there wasn’t a queue to get into the extraordinary C13th Saint-Chapelle, which was built to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ.

I have been inside before, but on a second viewing it was just as breathtaking. The vast, seemingly uninterrupted, red/blue stained-glass walls (the supporting structure is barely visible) sore into the heavens, the distant ceiling is a night sky studded with golden stars. Every column and section of wall is richly patterned in shades of dark red, gold and blue. Trompe d’oeil panels conjure up drapes of heraldic cloth.

In contrast to the straight lines and regular geometric shapes of most of the windows, the (later-constructed) Rose Window, with its expanded palate of reds, blues, greens and yellows is a glorious swirl of curving leaves and petals, each one containing a fantastical episode from the life of a saint or a martyr.

There were other intriguing uses of glass in the decoration too – on the walls, sheets of coloured glass had been laid over coloured foils, and big beads of coloured glass had been stuck on the borders of saintly images like jewels (and it was clear that, like jewels, they were coveted – quite a few of them were missing!).  The exterior stone carvings flanking the great doorways were lovely too – biblical scenes depicted in a gentle, naturalistic manner.

Our continued wanderings took us down to the riverside, where a buzzing local weekend crowd was gathering. All sorts of facilities had been set up for the summer folk – parasols and deck-chairs, temporary cafes, bars and inventive children’s play areas. There were even (well used!) board game tables and cooling misters.

Some people preferred to find a quieter spot for a picnic perched on the edge of the stony embankment.

In the afternoon light the white-beige cut-stone-walls of the elegant Ile Saint-Louis terraced apartments glowed warmly (in bright or misty sunshine the whiteness of Paris can be painful to the eyes!).

We ate tasty salads at a pavement cafe in the square of the Sorbonne, before buying a bottle of sweet Rose D’Anjou (chilled with our mini-bar ice) which we sipped whilst sitting in the green-arbored shade of the Jardin de Luxembourg until the whistles were blown at dusk and we were all shepherded out.

On Sunday morning, after an early morning thunderstorm, we headed out for a cafe breakfast, deliciously buttery scrambled eggs and tartines, and watched the locals doing their grocery shopping, baguettes under their arms.

While we were walking along the Seine we happened to glance down at the lower river walk and saw a couple of fire engines setting up for a training exercise. What caught our eyes at first were the pompiers’ ridiculously shiny silver helmets (and their generally stylish suspendered outfits).

Then we watched them raise a very high ladder and set up a couple of thick coiled hoses, which they rigged up to a river-water pump, before squirting huge jets of spray across the river, the Louvre providing a magnificent back-drop.

Most of the passing pleasure cruisers kept a safe distance from the spray, but one boat full of pink-clad hen-partiers motored straight through cheering and catcalling! It was all quite a show!

We crossed over to the Tuileries Gardens, where we were to spend most of the day, admiring the glorious flowers, and visiting its two wonderful art galleries – The Orangery and the Jeu de Paume. The planting in many of the flower beds had been inspired by famous medieval paintings from the Louvre (which were reproduced on tiny boards at appropriate points).

The shady avenues of neatly-manicured horse-chestnuts were in various states of health (not all of them dying, which was something – perhaps a few will survive the blight).

We came across a beautiful series of small sculptures of hands by Louise Bourgeois. They were gentle, supportive, connecting hands – with a real warmth and liveliness to them (we didn’t need to read the title – ‘The Welcoming Hands’ – to feel that!).

We were surprised to be able to walk straight in to The Orangery, and when we entered the first gallery of Monet’s Waterlily paintings, there were only ten or twelve other visitors there. We all sat at the centre of the oval room and peacefully contemplated the vast almost abstract muted blue/grey/purple/green canvases, occasionally shifting spots to get a slightly different perspective.

It was a very special experience, being able to spend so much quiet time with some of the worlds most admired paintings. Sometimes you might focus on little details of texture, brush-stroke, and colours, other times you might absorb the dusky stillness of the pond at Giverny.

After a while the selfie-photographers invaded, and we went down the stairs to look at the Jean Walter and Paul Guillaume collection of late C19th/early C20th French paintings. It was a great whistle-stop tour of some of the great names of the period.

A room full of Renoirs reminded me that I’m not too keen on his pretty full-cheeked portraits, but I did like a small painting of a bunch of flowers, the vase a beautiful glossy emerald green (pictured). There were a few lovely Cezannes, several of Matisse’s colourful Odalisques (see picture) and some blank-faced Modiglianis. A room full of Rousseau’s work showcased some of his odder pieces (see picture!).

The only female artist included was Marie Laurencin, who was famous as a set-designer. Her paintings were of whimsical fantastical pink, purple and green ballerinas, and they were mainly notable for their lovely frames – one was an elegant mosaic of mirrors.

Other paintings that caught my eye, by artists I hadn’t heard of, were the series of ‘white’ painted landscapes by Maurice Utrillo (pictured is an image of the house of the composer Berlioz), and a striking portrait entitled ‘Le Jeune Anglaise’ by Chaim Soutine, which, from across the room, I could have sworn was the young Maggie Thatcher. The painting certainly captured a very English look!

In the heat of the early afternoon we sat in the parasol shade of a pop-up Japanese bar, by the Jeu de Paume gallery, drinking fresh apple and ginger juice (paired with wasabi peas). Afterwards we went into the gallery, which, like the Orangery, is an impressive modern white several-storied space hidden in the elegant shell of the original C19th stone garden pavilion.

Although the place is billed as a photography gallery, its remit extends to video and sound art too. The first of the three temporary exhibitions focussed on the Columbian artist Oscar Murillo, and featured a video of an installation he had made of his home-town’s chocolate factory, which he had temporarily relocated to an art gallery in New York. He compared the ‘process’ of this, with the movements of a group of traditional Columbian dancers.

The second exhibition showcased the elegant, simple video pieces of the Tunisian artist Ismail Bahri. One of them showed a drop of water resting on a pulse point – it was surprisingly mesmeric! Another focussed in on a piece of paper igniting at the centre and gradually burning out in a perfectly circular hole. In a third sound/video piece, he had covered the camera lens with a piece of white paper, then taken a walk round the streets of Tunis, chatting to local people, the camera recording very subtle shifts in shades/shadows of white.

The main gallery space was devoted to a retrospective look at the career of Dutch photographer Ed van Elsken. Active from the 1950s to the 1980s, he was a street photographer, with a fresh, lively, cinematic eye. He loved to travel, and would often get involved with the marginal people he (sought out and) photographed, he was fascinated by the ethnographies of places and social histories, and made a number of films about places he knew which were changing.

In the 1950s he photographed the young bohemian drop-outs of St Germain des Pres, they were his friends and co-conspirators, glamorous in their messy lives, and most of them didn’t live long. Later in the 1950s he travelled in (what was later to become) the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone and Senegal, working with local communities on projects about cultural identity. His lovely atmospheric picture of fisherman at dusk (pictured) was taken during this period.

What I loved most in the exhibition was a great panoramic frieze of crisp black and white gig photos of famous jazz musicians. In the 1950s, so many of the greats played in Europe (it was easier/safer for them to gig there than in America at that time), and van Elsken went to hear and photograph them all. Virtually all the iconic names were there – Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Benny Golson etc. etc.

As the afternoon light softened into evening, we walked back through the Tuileries Gardens, where we pulled up a couple of green metal chairs and enjoyed watching the perambulating crowds and continued to admire the brilliant flowers, the colours of which seemed to gain in intensity as the shadows lengthened.

On our walk back through our classy neighbourhood we passed a commercial gallery with some very striking pictures in the window – one artist appeared to have laser-cut feathers into tiny delicate designs of flocking birds.

We went out for supper at the bistro on the corner of our road. Our charmingly sardonic waiter (who looked like a lean, if ageing, Jean-Paul Belmondo!), served us boeuf tartare (which we washed down with a bottle of chill dry rose), whilst around us, the French locals gossiped and chain-smoked. It all felt very authentic!!

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Week 252 – a London/Edinburgh culture fest

On Monday morning I headed straight to Sonya’s place in Mile End, to meet up with her and 3-month-old baby Effra. Snuggled cosily in his carrying-cocoon, he travelled with us down to Eltham Palace for a lovely hot sunny day spent perambulating the elegant rooms and verdant gardens and catching up on all the new-baby news!

The 1930s rooms of the villa still look startlingly modern with their streamlined furniture and restrained decor (creams and browns, warm wood-panelling, touches of orange and gold).

And the bathrooms, are, as always the stand-out – with mosaics of turquoise, sage-green, brilliant gold, variegated marble sinks, mirror-walls, and chunky chrome/delicate bronze-flowered tap fittings.

Effra chose the C16th Great Hall (King Henry VIII used to entertain here) as the setting for the first of his many feeding stops of the day! A couple of sofas had conveniently been placed in the minstrels gallery, so while he guzzled away, we could admire the wonderful wooden vaulting and the stained glass throwing patterns of light on the stone floors.

Since I’d last visited, English Heritage had converted several of the glasshouses into a classy cafe, and we enjoyed superior pots of smoked mackerel pate and salads under a blazing midday sun.

In the afternoon we explored the gardens, the herbaceous borders at the height of their glory, roses, lavender, honeysuckle etc sweetly scenting the hot summer air. We found fruiting mulberry trees and surreptitiously picked a few (hard to hide, as the crimson juice seeps everywhere!). The moat was full of monstrous mouthing carp, some almost as big as the ducks.

After the green calm of the Eltham Palace gardens (the city just a faint spiky pattern on the horizon – see picture!), it was hard to adjust back to the chaos of central London! I arrived at Waterloo at the beginning of rush-hour, and, due to August station-upgrade works, the crowds were particularly extreme (see picture!).

I retreated to the ‘King’s Arms’, a pretty little pub set into the middle of one of Waterloo’s oldest terraced backstreets, where I was joined for a drink and a Thai meal by a few gamelan friends (Liz, Kaori, Kate, Debbie and Paula). There was so much news to catch up on – the evening went far too quickly! As we left the pub in the dark, it looked like a UFO was landing (the lights were from a forest of construction cranes – as I waited for the bus, the grey skeletons of the new buildings loomed ominously above my head).

I started my second full day in London with a run. I’d consulted my A-Z to find the greenest route that I could from the door of Andy and Di’s house, and that took me through Earlsfield, across the buillt-up Wandle River, around the flat municipal lawns of Wimbledon Park and up a steep hill (lined with millionaires’ mansions) to end in the wild expanses of Wimbledon Common. The final stretch took me along muddy bridle-paths, under the shade of oak trees, past bramble hedges and stretches of late-flowering heather. My furthest point was the old windmill. I got a bit lost on the way back so I must have ended up running quite a reasonable distance!

I met Sonya mid-morning at the Camden Roundhouse, to see a new installation in the main performance space. Entitled ‘+/- Human’, it was a collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor and installation-creators Random International, who had designed a mysterious flock of large autonomous white spheres. As we entered the darkened space, the eight of them emerged from an upper side-chamber, bobbing curiously above our heads (always just out of reach).

When we moved around, the balloons might follow behind, individually, or suddenly, without warning, they would all zoom towards each other and start moving in unison, flocking together and slowly circling. They were almost silent, only emitting a gentle whirring noise (the sound of their tiny steering propellors). It was eerie, but they seemed a benign presence, and baby Effra took it all in his stride!

The Roundhouse’s other summer attraction was their ‘beach’! Their upper outdoor courtyard was several feet deep in sand with deck-chairs, a tiki bar and a french(?!) barbecue. Happily the sun was out, so we could go along with the conceit! Sons and I sampled sweet cocktails and Effra discovered the joys of sand between his toes.

After an afternoon spent re-acquainting myself with some of my favourite shops (and discovering several had closed – or were about to close – most sadly the Covent Garden bead shop), I enjoyed a Benito’s Hat burrito (still better than any Australian equivalent!), and headed to the Gielgud Theatre for the evening’s performance of the new Jez Butterworth play ‘The Ferryman’. Starring the lovely Paddy Considine, it was a big, lively, devastating family drama set in Ireland in the early 1980s.

Considine played Quinn, a reformed IRA activist and father, who is at the heart of a large farming family spanning several generations – there were the elderly aunts, one angry and political, the other serene and largely silent, the strained wife, the sparky mistress (widow of Quinn’s missing brother), the many noisy children (even a tiny baby), the strange hangers-on, and assorted wildlife. Whilst preparing for the harvest supper, an unwelcome guest arrives with news that the body of Quinn’s brother (an IRA man) has recently been discovered in a nearby bog. The terrible implications of this, uncovering unspeakable past events, seep like poison into the present, leading to an explosive and bloody denouement (which, powerful as it was, sat uncomfortably with the richly layered, simmering tension of the rest of the piece).

On Wednesday morning I went to a couple of galleries in Vauxhall, the first being Damien Hirst’s (fairly) new space, the Newport Street Gallery. Abutting the brick arches of a raised railway line, and partly re-purposing old brick warehousing, the new sections of the building flow into the old, mimicking the shapes and colours of the original parts, in a clever and sympathetic way – it was very satisfying to look at!

And the gallery spaces inside were vast, with light streaming in from glass roof panels. The undulating stairwells were a highlight too.

The exhibition, of brightly coloured sculptures and paintings by the Bajan artist Ashley Bickerton, was lively and arresting. His concerns included the commodification of culture, stereotypes of Caribbean/Pacific island life, and the pollution/degradation of the seas.

One gallery was swimming with large resin sharks strapped up in life-jackets with bags of blood/coconuts suspended from them, another had walls full of swirling patterned mirrors strewn with plastic sea-found debris, another was lined with vitrines preserving seeds and random man-made materials.

I went on to the Garden Museum, which has recently been restored and extended. Based in the former church where the famous C17th botanist and gardener John Tradescant is buried, the museum traces the history of private and public gardens in the UK, with sections on the famous British garden designers and details about the many foreign plants which are now seen as quintessentially ‘English’.

I learnt that the trade of ‘gardener’ was first recognised by King James 1 in 1605, and also that the London plane Tree (the despised cause of my hay-fever!) is a hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental plane tree, and was first brought to England in the C16th. Also fascinating were the detailed engravings of C19th garden plans, and, of course, the many beautiful botanical illustrations.

In the early afternoon I rode the DLR out across the Eastern hinterlands, past the great hulks of dilapidated factories (a few still clinging on – namely the Tate and Lyle factory, which still fills the surrounding suburb with a heavy scent of boiled sugar), small clumps of Dickensian back-to-backs, weedy wastelands and glassy new developments. I was to catch a plane from London City Airport to Edinburgh. The terminal is cramped and hectic, but efficient, and I was soon soaring above the Thames and heading north.

Emerging from the plane in Edinburgh, I was greeted with gusts of mild salty rain – par for the course I thought – but actually that was pretty much the only rain I experienced in Scotland! I met Xerxes at his apartment, a spacious set of rooms on an upper floor of a gloriously grand greystone terraced mansion built round a half circus in Edinburgh’s New Town. With the river Leith plunging through a deep valley behind his building, his unobstructed view north was across tree-tops, out to the edge of the city and the Firth of Forth, with the mountains (and approaching weather) beyond.

We were joined in the early evening by Anna B, who, incredibly fortuitously, had been invited (up from Manchester) to speak at a conference in Edinburgh that very day. I can’t remember the last time that the three of us had hung out together, it was a very special treat! We went out for a smart meal (crispy grilled salmon and curried quinoa – who knew Scottish cuisine could be so sophisticated? – over the next few days I was to be surprised!) and looked at the Edinburgh Festival app to locate a nearby show to go to.

We decided on ‘Losing Days’, a two-man musical show about living with bipolar. It was pretty full-on – in a tiny basement room, with only inches between audience and performers, the actor (Sam) told his story, breaking up his intensely personal monologue with renditions of Frank Turner songs (accompanied by a second guitarist). The show was flawed – the banter between Sam and his sidekick was rather forced, but he was a good actor, his self-penned script was lucid and eloquent, and I felt that I’d learnt something about the day-to-day experience of the condition.

Thursday dawned clear and bright and remarkably warm. I’d been keen to walk up Arthur’s Seat (how amazing to have a big wild rocky hill in the middle of a city!), and the conditions were perfect. I strolled down the Royal Mile, already bustling with tourists, buskers and keen people distributing show fliers at 9am in the morning. Every available surface – wall, fence, lamp-post, street furniture, pavement etc. was plastered with show posters, and, where a show had been reviewed, photocopied strings of stars/enthusiastic comments had been stapled on top of the relevant poster. With 400 hundred venues and over 4000 shows on offer, there were a lot of shows to be advertised!

Arthur’s Seat rises close to the bottom of the Royal Mile. Many other people had had the same idea as me, so I joined a long string of variously fit pedestrians climbing the muddy, rocky pathways. The grass was full of wildflowers (purple thistles, loosestrife and heather, blue scabious, yellow ragwort and gorse), and you didn’t need to climb very high to get huge views across city and sea. It really was spectacular. And, although the rocky summit was busy with precariously balanced crowds, pathways across the cropped grassy plateau took you to quieter spots.

My route back down took me along the base of the Salisbury crags, impressively tall and creviced, with clusters of windblown harebells and hawkweed. Once back in the city I sought the high ground, strolling through a cemetery (complete with watch-tower – put in place to deter the early C19th grave-robbers) to reach the the imposing stone frontages of the Royal Terrace.

Above these was the summit of Calton Hill, clustered with various monuments, including the odd colonnaded folly that is the National Monument.

During my wanderings I passed many Edinburgh Fringe venues – sometimes only identifiable as such by the prominent display of a big black on white number, although more often than not also plastered with posters. This first day I decided to try my luck with whatever show was about to start as I passed. The first one was in the surprisingly large basement of an austere old church. Entitled ‘She and her cat’, it was advertised as traditional Japanese story-telling. Sadly it was rather an amateur affair – the 6-foot-tall cartoonishly dressed South African narrator explained that she had just learnt of this traditional story-telling style (basically, it was a story told in dialogue) and was trying it out for the first time. The tale, about a little girl and her cat (who turned out to embody the spirit of her dead father) was sweet enough, but the delivery was clumsy and a occasionally cringe-worthy.

My next flyer was handed to me by a big butch drag queen with lots of shiny silver tape on her face, who called herself ‘Georgia Tasda’, her show entitled ‘Afternoon tea with…’. It was was part of the ‘Free Fringe’, staged in the back bar of a gay pub, and I thought, why not?! I tried to hide at the end of a row (tricky, as there weren’t many of us there) to avoid any audience participation (I was partially successful in this). She was strange and trashy, but endearing. I loved her choice of lip-syncing songs (which included ‘Common People’ and ‘Toxic’), some of her bawdy stand-up was very amusing (and bizarre, she made her afternoon tea from twigs and old socks). She was also a big fan of John Waters and Pink Flamingos in particular!

On picking up tickets for some shows the following day, I asked what the long queue of people were heading in to see at the neighbouring venue, and it was ’Atlantic: A Scottish Story’, a charming, nicely-performed, if rather studenty, folk-tune-tinged-musical about a doomed romance between two young islanders, one who chose adventure overseas, the other who chose family duty and regretted it all her life. The stage was crammed with enthusiastic young singers, a large live band, and piles of crates which served as boats, bars, factories etc.

Before meeting Xerxes for the evening shows, I popped into one of his museums, the National Museum of Scotland. Opening off the grand airy entrance atrium is an impressive suite of recently-refurbished galleries, including a lovely transport/science section which included hot air balloons you could inflate and watch float up to the ceiling, and a hand-wound compressed-air rocket launcher, which had large gangs of teenage boys transfixed. The natural history gallery had hippos, dolphins and dinosaurs flying through the air high above your head. Unsurprisingly, I liked all the lighthouse prisms – glass and mirror mosaic/oil lamp.

Our first show of the evening was in the Pleasance, one of the main Fringe hubs, always chaotic with snaking queues winding round the courtyard into one of the many rooms of the labyrinthine complex (one of many such venues – Edinburgh is astonishingly full of them!). The show was ‘Last clown on Earth’, and Derevo, (the performer and) the last clown, a shambling, elderly, spare, tramp-like figure led us into the hall, making his final journey to the stage through the seated audience, climbing and rolling over us (he landed in my lap before diving headfirst into the next row – he was surprisingly light and fragrant!). What followed was a mesmerizing hour of physical theatre and the bleakest of clowning. There were biblical themes (the fall from grace – Adam and Eve flirting and battling was portrayed in very funny mime), there was a descent into the inferno (a great flapping plume of red silk), at one point the clown even dragged around his own coffin on a creaking wheeled frame. But there were the trappings of clowning too – he drove a tiny car and sported a series of preposterous red noses, one so huge he had to cart it around in a wheelbarrow.

Our next destination was the grand Lyceum Theatre, where we saw the first of the two shows we had booked for in the Edinburgh International Festival [the big budget, high quality strand of the festival, as opposed to the Edinburgh Fringe which encompasses almost all of the other shows, which can be astonishing, dreadful, or anywhere in between!]. The show was ‘Blak Whyte Gray’, a new piece of hip-hop dance theatre by the London-based company Boy Blue Entertainment. From the first scene, an incredibly controlled display of robotic dancing, it was electrifying. Clad in straitjacket-type costumes (like a gang of asylum escapees) the troupe of astonishing dancers jerked and twisted, slid on the ground, leapt and break-danced, with absolute precision (from the tips of the fingers to the tips of their toes) and rhythmic finesse, their shapes and patterns beautifully amplified by elegant lighting (a section contrasting blocks of negative/positive lighting was particularly striking). The second half of the show explored group dynamics and leadership, the ‘leader’ (who started the section with an amazing solo dance of the shoulder-blades) sometimes strong, otherwise so limp as to be manipulated by all the other dancers.

Our 10pm show was ‘Adam’, a moving two-hander theatre piece about an Egyptian transgender man, who claimed asylum in Glasgow, before being able to transition. Based on a true story, what gave the performance added power (if not polish), was that the main character was played by the real ‘Adam’ (who had never acted on stage before). It was a cleverly scripted play, using ‘contronyms’ (where the same word can have the opposite meaning, e.g. bolt – to lock up/flee or screen – to show/hide) as an over-arching theme. ‘Adam’ and a female actor played the different facets of Adam’s character, pre-transition (plus all the other roles), and the flat stage was full of concealed boxes which housed all the various props, from the clothes rails of the fashion shop he worked in, to the toilet where he used to sit and think.

After a brief sleep it was time for another full day of culture! I started with a couple of art shows. A short stroll from Xerxes’ flat is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, an imposing neo-gothic red sandstone building, with a grand galleried two-storey entrance hall, lined with opulent gold-rimmed murals depicting great Scottish figures and stirring historical events.

At the centre of this hall is a full-sized white marble statue of the poet Robert Burns. For the festival, the artist Douglas Gordon had responded to this sculpture, by recreating it in shiny black granite, then smashing it into pieces and strewing it across the floor. As a representation of the less savoury aspects of the poet, it was very effective.

I wandered through a couple of the other galleries, one featuring portraits of famous C20th/C21st Scots (a lively pastel sketch of Tilda Swinton caught my eye), the other devoted to a challenging but powerful series of photos taken by a photographer documenting his own heroin addiction, at the point at which he only rarely escaped his derelict apartment. Somehow, he had retained his photographers eye (and indeed, was still holding down professional work) even at his lowest points, and he has since made a full recovery.

I was nearly frustrated in my mission to find the next art show, which was in the apse of a tiny church hidden halfway up one of the narrow, stepped, closes that drop steeply down from the Royal Mile. The installation was called ‘The dragon of profit and private ownership’, and comprised a great green inflatable dragon and some accompanying props and videos, showing the live action version of the piece, which was like a modern-day mummers play – a procession of kids in green costumes, and actors declaiming the story of the greedy capitalists versus the socialists (or some such!).

I also popped into the Edinburgh Tapestry Workshop. An upper gallery, open to the public and lined with deliciously vivid examples of the weavers work, also gives you a view down into the main working area, where various huge looms were set up with work in progress. A realisation of a vibrant abstract painting had just been finished and cut off the loom. Another symphony of oranges had just been started. I learnt that Chris Ofili’s recent tapestry (which I went to see at the National Gallery later in my trip) had been made here. Even the stairwell had been woven with a web of colourful threads. And in a downstairs gallery a little exhibition showcased some unconventional weaving, including a screen woven of reeds.

At midday (when the programme of performances tends to start), I headed off to my first show of the day. I’d decided to go with one of Xerxes’ recommendations, ‘Tsepang’, a brilliant, utterly devastating play about child rape. Performed by a South African theatre company, it was a two-hander, but one of the characters (a woman) was mute. From the first glimpse of her, obsessively grinding rice at the centre of the stage, it was clear that she was carrying an immense unassuageable pain, and as the other character (a man) gradually revealed the story, in beautifully poetic African-phrased prose, the scale of it became horribly clear. The judicious use of props (brooms, bread, rice), utilized first in natural, harmless ways, but later becoming brutally symbolic, was particularly effective.

I was glad that my next hour was spent in the company of the delightfully dry comic poet John Hegley. Accompanied by a slide-show of his eccentric sketches of fantastical animals and memory drawings of his family’s bungalow, he sang silly songs and riffed on his family, from his exotic French grandmother who used to dance in the Folies Bergeres, to his rapidly-maturing daughters. He directed the audience in ridiculously complex tongue-twister sing-alongs, and got increasingly, comedically, exasperated with our failures to measure up. It was hilarious!

In the late afternoon drizzle, I said hello to Greyfriars Bobby and spent half an hour exploring the Greyfriars churchyard (its graves famous for providing the inspiration for Harry Potter character names – it was full of enthusiastic young ‘Harry Potter’ tour guides trailing huge groups of tourist fans). I was most excited by the creatively macabre carvings on the C17th tombstones.

Xerxes joined me in the queue for the big top to see ‘Kin’, an inventive hour of circus stunts, framed within a ‘Survivor’/‘You’ve got talent’-type of game-show. Five very differently-physiqued acrobats competed for the attentions of a brutally officious judge who wasn’t afraid to use her buzzer. Although the concept didn’t add that much to the show, there were some wonderful set-pieces, including the most beautifully choreographed Cyr-wheel work that I’ve ever seen, and a great sequence of leaps and flips from a large see-saw.

We followed this with ‘Fast Fringe – Chortle Comedy’ – ten 3-minute sets from a random selection of festival comedians. A popular choice, the dingy low-ceilinged student-union room was packed with people we never encountered at any other performance! It was interesting to see the various different approaches to the 3-minute challenge. There were a few good comic songs, an entertainingly lugubrious punster, and a very clever riff on lying by the bizarrely-attired Red Devil. Best of all was the host, Jimmy McGhie, a switched-on Londoner who made some very astute observations (and happily, he was allowed more than 3 minutes to share them!).

After a hurried, but rather tasty Venison shawarma in one of the little festival gardens, we headed into the Spiegeltent (definitely one of the classiest venues with its stained-glass panelled wooden walls, leather booths, soft lighting and Parisian-cafe table set-up). The show was the Brassai-inspired 1930s-styled ‘Paris de Nuit’, performed by a deliciously sexy (skintight black lace was the order of the day!) and polished Hungarian circus group, with live 6-piece jazz band. Stand-out acts were a wonderful tight-rope walker (she danced along the rope in high-heels, and did the splits), some creative juggling with rings, and some impressively graceful two-man trapeze swing work. A male and female clowning routine on the suspended rings was also unusually successful.

Our final show of the day was ‘Martin Creed’s Words and Music’. The wild-looking Scottish artist (who famously won the 2001 Turner-Prize with his installation of a lightbulb switching on and off) hopped on to the stage backwards, then stood on one leg for at least 5 minutes, whilst reflecting on why we so often say yes when our instinct says no. His meandering ruminations moved on to to the wider internal conflicts of thought and emotion, and the impossibility of understanding anyone else’s emotions and motivations. There was lots of interesting stuff in there, but it was sometimes hard to follow (especially as it was late, and we were tired!). Thankfully he interspersed his wonderings with a number of well-played and catchy existential comic songs.

On Saturday Steff travelled up from (near) Carlisle to join our Fringe marathon for the day. It was the first time we’d seen each other in 5 years, so there were many things to talk about whilst we ran between/queued to get into shows! Unfortunately, unlike on other days, our hit rate, in terms of shows, wasn’t especially high!

The first show was the Fanti Acrobats from Ghana. The street acrobats – skilled in plate spinning, contortion and limbo – were entertaining enough, and there were smatterings of traditional dance too, but the garrulous host loved the sound of his voice too much, and there was more talk than action. This was followed by another disappointment – ‘Margarita Dreams’ was a comic revue show, with an attractive (and unusually large) bright pink poster and some promising critical comments. The young cast was energetic and enthusiastic, but all the jokes fell flat.

Thankfully, the next show, ‘Translunar Paradise’, by the London theatre group Ad Infinitum, was one of the highlights of the festival. It was a magical masked mimed drama about a grieving widower recalling the key moments of his life with his beloved wife (while her spirit looks on, still there, but just out of reach). Accompanied by a live accordion and simple, wordless singing, the pair of actors portrayed in exquisite, eloquent movements, scenes of first love, house-setting-up, marriage, miscarriage, going off to war. It was so moving – funny and sad, and the whole audience rose as one in a standing ovation at the end.

Our next play, staged in a tiny basement room, was a very different proposition. Two young actors had decided to stage the Ibsen play ‘[My father] John Gabriel Borkman’, playing all the parts between them, with various fast-forward sections framing the meatier emotional scenes, and the expedient use of a whiteboard and minimal props as identifiers. It wasn’t completely successful, but both actors, particularly the woman, were talented, so both the bravura quick-change scenes, and some of the big dialogues were entertaining and engaging.

We had a little time to fortify ourselves before the evening shows, and enjoyed a delicious Indian meal (one of the things on my holiday list of ‘must dos’!) of spicy potato and spinach dosa. We also discovered a slightly classy Fringe bar, which served Rhubarb and Ginger infused Scottish gin (fabulous!).

‘The Sky is Safe’ was a powerful (but a little over-long) two-hander about Syrian refugees in Istanbul. A travelling British businessman meets a Syrian prostitute and forms an uneasy relationship with her, meanwhile she channels the terrible (real) testimonies of 6 Syrian woman who had escaped to Turkey. It was sobering, important stuff, well-acted by an adept (and experienced – i.e. a lot older than the norm!) cast.

The best thing about ‘Morale is high (now we’ve given up hope)’ was its title! The concept wasn’t bad – it was billed as a comedy sketch show about travelling into the future to reflect on the political climate of the past (i.e. now), but although it asked a lot of pertinent questions (and threw in some raucously entertaining rock songs), it didn’t attempt any answers, but just coasted along on rather weak banter.

Steff, Xerxes and I started Sunday morning with a stroll along the river Leith which runs at the bottom of a gorge directly below Xerxes’ house. He has keys to a steeply gradiented private stretch of park running down from the big stone buttresses supporting his terrace to the dark tree-shadowed stretch of river.

After that Steff had to head home, but Xerxes and I had our biggest festival day to date – we’d managed to cram 8 shows into our schedule (this scheme almost came unstuck at one point when we sprinted from one venue to another, only to find our next show was already 10 minutes in!).

‘Things we find in the dark’ was a sweet-natured but very amateur student story-telling show about one boy’s quest to conquer his night-demons. It featured some simple but nicely designed shadow puppets, and an effective 3-girl chorus, but it came unstuck with the heavy reliance on ‘Sam’’, the rather daft, goofy main acting character.

‘Slut’ was an arresting, spirited contemporary kathak dance show about a young Indian girl growing up in a brutal misogynistic world. Violent, ungraceful movements (there was an awful lot of simulated sex) were contrasted with the nervy rhythms and exact patterns of traditional kathak. A scene portraying an initially euphoric but rapidly deteriorating evening at a night-club was particularly effective. It was only a shame that some of the dancers were much less skilled than the others, which led to a few too many longueurs.

We hadn’t been sure whether we would be brave enough for our next show (claustrophobics were advised not to enter) – advertised as a ‘Seance’! An audience of 16 filed in to an old shipping container, where we were all seated round a long narrow table. We were each given a pair of headphones and told to place both hands on the edge of the table, before suddenly being plunged into utter darkness. The table started creaking (as if someone was walking on it, but we could see nothing) and a medium started whispering (it was a recording, but a frighteningly convincing one – sometimes it seemed as though the voice was talking to the person opposite, sometimes it was a breathy whisper right in your own ear). The tension heightened as the ‘spirits’ started appearing!

Our next show was ‘Lists for the end of the world’. As we waited to enter the venue (a lecture theatre, complete with desks), we were asked to write a list of all our favourite childhood toys. The show was a brilliant crowd-sourced piece about people’s greatest achievements/darkest fears. The creators had (prior to the show) asked lots of people to answer a series of questions (such as ‘what is the achievement your 8-year-old self be most proud of?’, ‘what keeps you awake at night?’, ‘what would you do if you could get away with it?’, ‘what would you like to do before you die?’, ‘how would you dispose of a body’(!) etc.). They had then woven people’s answers (ridiculous, sublime, raw, honest and moving) into a brilliantly choreographed/acted/sung/lit rapid-fire show. I was wowed by it – Xerxes and I came out on a real high!

The next show was astonishing too. ‘Mouthpiece’ (staged in a beautiful old galleried chapel) by the Canadian actors Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken, was a fiercely funny, emotional and intelligent exploration of female identity. Both actors played interlocking, shifting facets of the main character, a young woman mourning the sudden loss of her mother and trying to devise a eulogy for her. Using music (astonishingly visceral, gorgeous vocals), sound, movement and acting, and one simple prop (a large white enamel bath-tub) they took us on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride through grief and anger, power/suppression and love.

We sneaked in, ten minutes late, to Daniel Bye’s fascinating piece ‘Instructions for border crossing’. Seated at a desk in a tensa-barriered-off pen, he invited audience volunteers in, one-by-one, to play a game of jenga and help him perform a series of thought-provoking vignettes about the (mythical) activist/artist Edward Shorter, which explored refugee politics/the politics of borders. An account of an asylum seeker’s journey in the engine of a truck was effectively soundtracked with a microphone dragged over a desk fan, and the whole audience were asked to join in a series of chilling Pinteresque interrogation scenes.

Our penultimate show of the weekend was ‘TuTuMucky’, a half-hour dance performance by Scottish Dance Theatre. It was apocalyptic ballet, a tribe of dancers in rusty orange/black tutus (both men and women) behaving badly. They threw themselves around furiously (but with great co-ordinated precision) to a blistering electronic techno-based soundtrack (by Danish ‘beat producer’ Torben Lars Sylvest).

We ended the day on a high with comedian Joseph Morpurgo’s fantastic performance in his fictional ‘post-show Q&A following his own 9-hour-long one-man performance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’. It was such a clever, inventive and hilarious show. The scripted ‘questions’ were shared between audience members (who inhabited their roles with gusto), and contributors from various (increasingly random) ‘on-screen’ forums, and they got gradually more critical/bizarre/irrelevant, as ‘Morpurgo’ the actor gradually imploded. At the end, after the celebration of an audience member’s birthday party, the Samuel Beckett techno DJs rolled onto the stage.

We rounded off the day with a late supper at a still-buzzing smart restaurant overlooking the castle. The food was beautifully prepared and simply and elegantly flavoured (the hype and fuss about Melbourne restaurant cuisine annoys me – most of the restaurant food I ate in the UK, at whatever price, was way better!). I enjoyed a starter of soused herring with beetroot puree and curried onion pickle, and a big dish of mussels in a creamy onion broth. Walking back through the echoing stony streets of the city at 11pm on a Sunday night, there were still people eddying around and plenty of activity, and I felt sad that my Edinburgh Festival had come to an end!

Week 251 – from Aussie winter to English summer!

I managed to fit in a few more Film Festival movies this week around my preparations for my 3 week solo UK trip! Natalia joined me again for a Tuesday morning film, ‘Salawaku’, by Indonesian director Pritagita Arianegara. Set in the lush island tropics of rural Ambon, it was about a young parent-less boy’s quest to find his beloved sister who has suddenly left the village in mysterious circumstances. As he paddles the coast/hitches his way around the island, picking up a lonely young tourist along the way, he learns some painful truths about adult life.

I chose two music-themed movies for the evening. ‘The Song Keepers’, by Australian director Naina Sen, was a stirring documentary about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. In remote Central Australia, a few elderly indigenous women still love to sing the Lutheran missionary choral hymns they were taught as children. They have fond memories of the missionaries, who protected them from the more brutal colonists (amongst other things, preventing the forced removal of children), and supported the women when (tradition ruled that) their own communities wouldn’t.

The hymns, in simple 3/4 part harmonies, had been translated into local languages by a couple of late C19th missionaries who were skilled linguists. In 2006 a British-Guyanese choir-master moved into the area and, astounded by the power of this music, worked (with local priests) to bring the remaining remnants of the choirs together, rehearsing them for a triumphant international tour of German Lutheran churches.

The whole choir was at the screening, giggling at themselves on screen (a couple of them were great comedians!), and afterwards, resplendently clad in their hand-painted brown/orange/golden patterned silk shifts, they sang for us!

‘Two Trains Runnin’’ was an interesting, if not particularly incisive, documentary by director Sam Pollard about two intersecting 1960s US events – the black civil rights movement and the blues revival. It followed the story of two groups of young white college students who decided to spend their summer breaks seeking a couple of blues legends (Skip James and Son House) who had ‘disappeared’ since the making of their legendary 1920s recordings. Both groups naively rocked up in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, when tensions in the state were at their highest. Amazingly, despite this, and with virtually no information to go on, both groups successfully located the bluesmen, who were ill/elderly and hadn’t played in years. They ended up joining a starry roster of blues musicians at the Newport Folk Festival that year. Their music had an ecstatic reception and came to be the music that defined Mississippi, and it continues to influence musicians across the world.

My last two films were on Wednesday. The first was the delightful ‘Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess’, by French animator Michel Ocelot. An old man and his two young charges gather together in a deserted night cinema and flick through classic historical images of monsters and palaces, sailing ships and princesses, and, inspired by these, create a series of simple silhouette animations over beautiful jewel-bright back-drops in order to tell traditional fairy-tales from Persia, Russia and Africa.

My final film was ‘Lucky’, directed by John Carroll Lynch. There wasn’t much to it – a lonely old man in a dusty desert town spends his days hanging out in the local diner and bar wonderingly reflecting on life and death. But the old man was played by the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton (I could hardly believe he’s still alive!), and he was chewing the fat with old friends David Lynch and Ron Livingstone (amongst others). It was lovely to spend 90 minutes in their low-key eccentric, laconic, company!

Maisie’s school was shut on Friday, so she, Tommy and I had a day trip to their favourite museum, Scienceworks. Maisie was thrilled that her legs are now long enough for her to operate the pedals of the player-piano, so she treated us to several rounds of old music-hall songs! Tommy spent most of his time turning the dials and pressing the buttons of the recycling machines. They both enjoyed exploring the sheds full of old sewage-pumping steam engines (the pipes still pass below the sheds, so it isn’t a fragrant spot!).

On Saturday I packed my bags and flew to the UK! The flight was full of well-spoken 6th-formers, all in matching voluminous patterned harem pants (boys and girls) who were flying home from a month of voluntary work (which mainly seemed to involve concrete pouring and toilet-building) in Borneo.

I arrived in London first thing on a warm and sunny Sunday morning, and headed across town to Andy and Di’s for a fortifying breakfast before embarking on my first full day of London culture! I had managed to secure a ticket for the last day of a Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum.

It was quite a different experience to the recent Hokusai show in the NGV – in the Australian gallery, they had space to spread the pictures out, and there weren’t too many people around, so I had time to study the tiny detailed images at leisure. At the BM, it was like a mosh-pit, crowds 5 or 6 people deep trying to catch a glimpse of each picture! However, as there was some overlap in the content of the exhibitions (the NGV was a greatest hits show, the BM focussed on the artist’s later career), I chose to get the best out of this second one, bypassing the most popular hits. Most wonderful were the many silk scroll paintings – a dragon in the mist, jewel-bright cockerels, serene groups of resplendently-costumed kabuki figures. I also loved the tiny birds darting through wind-blown sprigs of spring flowers, and the few rare examples of sketches made specifically for the cutting of the woodblocks – I admired the wonderful precision of the tiny black lines (and the extraordinary skill of the woodcarvers who translated these to the printing blocks).

Afterwards, having waded through the Great Court tourist crowds (where food, phones and shopping were the main orders of the day!), I made it up to the Print Gallery, to see a couple of temporary exhibitions. The first was ‘Places of the mind’, a selection of British watercolour landscape paintings dating from 1850 to 1950.

There was so much variety, from bucolic scenes of cottages and mountains, to images of cities and docks and industrial developments, some delicately detailed, some impressionistic washes, others fierce and abstract. And the roster of names was impressive – artists included Whistler, Burne-Jones, Ravilious, Nash, and Henry Moore. Three of my favourites are pictured – by Millais, Watts and Nicholson.

The other half of the gallery was devoted to a small collection of Native American artefacts from British Columbia (seeing them reminded me of my visit to the wonderful Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver). The beautifully carved bird-masks and totems have such energy and power.

The warmth of the day continued into the evening, and I joined Andy and Di for a wonderful home-cooked supper in their garden, finishing off with fruit crumble, made of freshly picked apples and blackberries – what a treat!

Week 250 – winter escapism

It has been a bitter grey wintery week (indeed, we experienced Melbourne’s coldest day in 19 years – a low of 3 degrees, a high of just 9 degrees!). Therefore it was perfect weather for the Melbourne International Film Festival (which started on Thursday). I had to light-touch it this year as it mainly clashes with my trip to the UK – but I did manage 9 films on the opening weekend!

I started on Friday with ‘Yourself and Yours’, a new film by the Korean director, Hong Sang-soo. It was a sweet and charming relationship comedy with a unique angle. A young artist is passionately in love with a mysterious girl who rejects him. She is sweet and demure, but also, a drunken serial seducer, and the subject of much neighbourhood gossip. She picks up men in bars most nights but seems to instantly erase them from her memory. The film never clarifies whether she suffers from amnesia or is a pathological liar. But the lovelorn artist is determined to come up with a new way of being in order to win her back.

Next was ‘Felicite’, by Franco-Senegalese film-maker Alain Gomis. It was a compelling tale of a talented Congolese bar-singer (the music was fantastic!) whose fragile, hard-won, independence is crushed when her son is badly injured in a motorbike accident. To raise funds for his treatment she has to resort to increasingly desperate measures, which drag her down into the darkest recesses of Kinshasa street-life. But she survives, and her son survives, and their lives are rebuilt in an unexpected, and hopeful, new way.

Saturday started with the first of Maisie’s two weekend birthday parties. The first was a whole-class affair, but happily the girl’s parents had booked the Gym Bus, so while the kids bounced around in the old double-decker outside, us parents spent a quiet morning inside chatting over sophisticated entrees and champagne! It was hard to tear myself away, but I had 4 films to see that day!

The first was a fascinating documentary, made by Australian director Claire Jager, entitled ‘Guardians of the Strait’. It was about the Bosphorous Strait that runs through Istanbul. This incredibly narrow, winding (and densely populated) channel that links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean sees more than 50,000 container ships (and thousands more smaller craft) pass through it every year. Every day and a half a potentially catastrophic accident is averted by the coast guard, maritime controllers and pilots who bravely operate in an entirely unregulated environment. Local activists, environmentalists, journalists and fishermen also work tirelessly to protect this unique (and beautiful) stretch of water.

Next was ‘Loveless’, the latest by Russian director Andrey Zvagintsev. In the crumbling ruins of a splintering middle-class relationship, the parents both eaten up with their hatred and disgust for each other (and their selfish lust for their new partners), their disregarded 12-year-old son is emotionally lost, and then one day he literally disappears. In the ensuing days of an increasingly hopeless man-hunt, the consequences of the parents loveless lives and marriage are measured out to brutal effect. Brilliantly scripted, acted and devastating.

‘Sami Blood’, by Swedish director Amanda Kernell, was a beautiful and affecting, but slightly pedestrian, tale of a young Sami girl’s mid-C20th coming of age in the north of Sweden. Rejecting her traditional reindeer-farming culture, yearning for the arts and literature and education of the Swedes (denied her as an inferior indigenous girl), yet facing daily persecution, she nevertheless pursues her dreams with great energy and courage.

‘City of Ghosts’ was the American director Matthew Heineman’s remarkable documentary about the anonymous activists and citizen journalists of Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Isis. Risking death every day – wherever they may be in the world – they continue to report on the horrific atrocities committed by the world’s most brutal terrorist group. Hard to watch but an astonishing, vital film about bravery and the crucial importance of objective journalism in these dangerous times.

Sunday started with ‘I am not a witch’, Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s clever, confronting satire about Zambian witch camps. A young orphan turns up in a drought-racked village one day and the locals don’t like the look of her, and brand her a witch. Sent off to a community of elderly witches, all tethered to long cotton leashes (so they don’t ‘fly off’) she is given the choice of joining them or being turned into a goat. Gawped at by tourists, used as a mascot by a pompous local government official in order to solve petty crimes/disputes, she makes her bewildered way through each day.

Next was ‘Lemon’, a highly stylised and arch ‘cringe comedy’ about an unlovely failing Jewish drama teacher, made by US director Janicza Bravo. Sadly it wasn’t more than the sum of its quirks. There were some great set pieces – a hellish family Passover meal was brilliantly absurd, and a cameo by Michael Cera, as a highly affected actor, hilarious – but the main protagonist was too limp and off-key to engage with on any level.

Happily the last film of my day (which I watched with my friend Natalia) was wonderful. ‘My Happy Family’, by Georgian directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, was about a 52-year-old mother of grown-up children, who one day ups and leaves her family home. In a deeply traditional, patriarchal society, her relatives (parents, husband, children & spouses – they all live in the same poky apartment), are incensed, horrified that she isn’t fulfilling her prescribed role any more. She relishes her freedom but her emotions continue to be tested as life continues its messy daily course. A beautiful, wise, melancholy and wry film, further enlivened by some wonderful spontaneous musical performances.

Week 249 – flying high

On Tuesday morning Neil and I went on a scenic helicopter flight over Melbourne (Neil bought me the voucher for my last birthday, almost 12 months ago!).

There were storm clouds on the horizon (leading to some dramatic lighting effects) but luckily they remained distant and we enjoyed clear views and the occasional shaft of sunshine as we buzzed from the city centre over the container port to Williamstown and followed the line of the coast down past St Kilda to Sandringham.

Our return journey took us over the suburban sprawl of Brighton and Caulfield, and the parks and sports stadiums that lead back into town.

Inside the helicopter it was cosy – like being in a small car. It was so noisy that we all wore headsets (which actually made it pretty quiet) which enabled us to talk to each other.

There were a few bumps on the way up (the skyscrapers create their own wind tunnels) but otherwise the ride was very smooth.

We learned that our smartly-liveried red and gold helicopter was European-made and would have cost $2million to buy!

Neil had to head off to work afterwards, but I went on to the new Hokusai exhibition at the NGV. It is a survey of the Japanese artist’s career, made up of prints held by the NGV and a Japanese gallery. All his most famous series were well-represented.

The largest amount of gallery space was devoted to a full set of his most beloved, and most striking series, the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including 2 prints of The Great Wave (the NGV’s own being the best copy). Having looked at all the wonderful images in the exhibition, it was this set that I kept coming back to. The radical composition and design of them is quite thrilling, still, combined with the wonderful evocation of time and place (all those fascinating, busy little people!).

The waterfalls were wonderful too, in their crazy abstraction, and with a gentler appeal, the more bucolic scenes captured in his series ‘One hundred poems explained by the nurse’ (see below – ‘the sadness of autumn’).

Also within the exhibition were a number of Hokusai’s Manga, which were full of tiny monochrome images of anything and everything, from self-defence techniques to deep sea fish to dance choreographies. And there was a small selection of his eerie images of traditional ghosts and demons.

On Thursday evening it was Melbourne’s annual ‘Art Nite’, when a number of the little independent galleries in the city centre open late. The event seems to get smaller each year. The first few galleries I sought out, whilst clearly operational, were shut, and when I did find a busy one, it turned out it wasn’t part of the event, I’d just stumbled on the opening night party!

There was a lot of bad art on show, but there were some fun things, including a colourful shopfront of Mexican outsider art (pictured) and a few atmospheric landscapes – I enjoyed a series of highly bleached-out photo-real canvases of Australian coastal vistas, and some interesting photo-collages of New Zealand glaciers.

In one of the poky rooms inside the prettily dilapidated 1930s Nicholas Building, an artist had set up an old-school sound installation, utilizing piles of antiquated electronic equipment. It beeped and buzzed and whispered and felt right for the space, which overlooks Flinders St station (see picture).

On Saturday it was incredibly windy – too windy to go running or risk flying debris in the park – but it was also sunny and bright and very mild. Happily Maisie had been invited to an indoor trampolining birthday party in Tooronga so she got the chance to burn some energy off.

I couldn’t bear to hang around in the play-centre for long so braced myself against the wind and made it across a motorway overpass to a surprisingly lovely narrow stretch of native landscaping following the path of Gardiner’s Creek.

Down by the creek it was relatively sheltered, and the rushing wind in the tall eucalypts disguised the noise of the nearby traffic, and set up haunting harmonies in the great electricity pylons.

The warmth had brought out the sweet scent of the wild honeysuckle, and the zing of the yellow wattle flowers, swaying wildly against an azure blue sky was stunning.

I had such a tranquil little walk, it was quite hard to adjust back to the noise and sugar-fuelled rush of the play-centre when I walked back to pick Maisie up!

Later on, while it was still blowing a gale, and the clouds were drawing in, Maisie and Tommy decided to go biking/scooting so we headed down to the skate park and they had a fine time being buffeted around. Luckily there wasn’t any sand blasting in our direction!

The winds died down a little in the evening, and Maisie and I went up to Gertrude Street to see the annual Projection Festival. Despite her flagging energy levels (evening events are always a struggle for her), Maisie was very engaged with all the little animations and films screening in shop windows and alleyways.

Those that particularly took her fancy were a large wall projection of roiling pink and green bubbles, a black-and-white film of a bird-like Japanese dancer, and a charming naive animation of land being settled – from the cutting down of native forest, to early tin shacks, to a forest of sky-scrapers, which eventually all took off like rockets.

I enjoyed the usual display of mechanical holographic flowers, the spectacle of a VR lounge (I couldn’t be bothered to queue to try out the VR itself), and a simple shadow-puppet show of a procession of fantastical beasts.

On Sunday it was still again, the sea as pale as the sky when I went out on my run. Unusually the children played quite happily together in the house – long convoluted games about overseas travel (Tommy was set on going to South America) which involved packing many large bags full of stuff and dragging them from room to room. I didn’t feel too guilty leaving Neil with them for an afternoon as I headed out to see a few local buildings that had been opened up for this year’s Open House event.

The first was Eildon Mansion on Grey Street, one of St Kilda’s earliest houses, constructed in 1850 when St Kilda was still a colonial hamlet surrounded by coastal swamps. The original elegant Regency style house was aggrandized in the 1870s by its new owner, a prominent sheep breeder, who added sombre grey columns and porticos, bay windows and balconies.

The structure has a commanding presence, but it isn’t beautiful! The interiors didn’t survive the many years that the building was used as a boarding house, and the gardens (which used to run down to the sea) were sold off, piece by piece, during the last century. But the Alliance Francaise, which now operates the building, has sympathetically restored some of the rooms, including the airy ballroom, and the beautiful ornate quarry tile floors in the hallways and verandas.

In the basement is the old kitchen which they have left scruffy – preserving traces of the mid-century wallpaper and smoke blackened walls, and the low arched tunnels off to storage rooms still have a Victorian atmosphere. The local historians who ran the guided tour were full of fascinating facts about the building and St Kilda back in the day.

I went on to Christ Church in Acland Street, another building from the 1850s. Constructed from local sandstone, it was surprisingly light and generously-proportioned inside, the red-brown wood of the pews and rafters shiny and polished and the perky stained glass windows glowing in the afternoon light. Most spectacular was the altar, which had been beautifully restored (to its original design) by a Melbourne art school. The walls were patterned with golden fleur-de-lys, and the pipes of the little organ (made by the London firm of Hill & Son) were painted teal and terracotta.

I just had time to make it to one more place, a sprawling 1930s apartment block in Balaclava. Home to a number of creatives – including designers, architects and gardeners – the residents committee had decided to turn the building’s extensive flat roof into a garden.

Despite the soil/gravel substrate being only 12cm thick, it was so much more than a green roof, there were swathes of wild grasses and blue-flowering rosemary and carpets of tiny succulents. Little wooden box vegetable plots had been set up at strategic points (i.e. above supporting walls). It was such a calm airy space, a real oasis!

Week 248 – dolphins!

Tommy had flu for much of the week, and spent his time sleeping curled up in a ball on the floor. When he awoke he reflected on dying ‘I don’t want to die, I won’t have fun any more’; he was also concerned that when he died he would have to wear nappies as he wouldn’t be able to go to the toilet. Trying to reassure him that he wouldn’t die for a long time didn’t help. Neil hit on the bright idea of introducing him to the idea of reincarnation, and that cheered him up!

On Thursday evening I went to an intriguing concert at the Recital Centre. Entitled ‘The Imperial Bells of China’, it was a ‘folkloric’ performance by the Hubei Provincial Opera and Dance Drama Theatre Ensemble. The sizeable group (immaculately clad in discreetly gold-embroidered red and black) was laid out like a Western classical orchestra, but made up of multiples of traditional Chinese instruments (with the addition of a couple of cellos and a double bass). There were 2-string fiddles, lutes of every shape and size, zithers, hammered dulcimers, reeded trumpets, mouth organs, bamboo flutes, and lots of drums and cymbals. The star attraction though, was a great ornate set of extremely ancient bronze bells (I think they were replicas!) which clunked and clanged through all the textures with their odd minor-third harmonics.

Most of the tunes were about happy peasants working on the land but there were some haunting melodies amongst the jolly romps, and when the group wasn’t trying too hard to introduce western-style harmonies the sinuous, reedy timbres were beautiful. For the most part, each group of instruments was involved in various layers/sections of the main melody. One piece in particular seemed to enliven the players – entitled ‘Silk Road’, it ferociously blended percussive tunes from Spain via the Middle East. The instruments lent themselves well to the very different tonal modes, and to the alternative playing techniques, and the timbres were just right.

There were various ‘star turns’ accompanied by the orchestra. A flautist impressed with his languid tones and lightning fast fingering in a ‘narrative melody’ from the drama ‘Madame White Snake’. A tenor in a magnificent white rhine-stone-encrusted suit gave a spirited rendition of a patriotic song. Most musically satisfying perhaps, were a couple of duets, one featuring a large zither and a set of crescent-shaped (metal/stone?) hanging chimes. Without the baggage of the other instruments, it allowed for the space, flexible timing and bending of tones which are such a striking feature of Chinese music, but otherwise not really in evidence during this concert. The encore was a lovingly orchestrated version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’!

Tommy rallied briefly on Friday and didn’t want to stay in the house any more, so I bundled him in blankets and tucked him up in the pram, and we made the most of a stunning utterly still iceberg-blue day by heading out on a coastal ramble [all this week’s blog photos were taken on this day]. There was a mist over the city and the distant towers were ghostly. Terns were soaring and dive-bombing the clear waters. After every precision white splosh they emerged with a tiny wriggling fish in their beaks. Scarlet-breasted house martins zoomed low over our heads in their pursuit of sandflies.

Shortly after turning back from our farthest point (Brighton Sea Baths), I noticed a dark grey shape breaking the aquamarine surface of the sea quite close by, and I looked again and saw that it was a dolphin, then three more of them (including a closely paired mother and baby) popped up. They weren’t in a hurry, and one of them occasionally leapt out of the waves in exuberant fashion (too unpredictably for me to capture in a photo). What a magical sight! Tommy was excited for a short while, but when it delayed our arrival at the nearby playground he started moaning loudly that ‘dolphins are boring’! However, later on, when we got home, he made a point of finding his little toy plastic dolphin and clutching it for the rest of the day.

Tommy was out for the count for most of the weekend, and Neil took on sick-bay duties. Maisie and I had a fun Saturday afternoon out, starting with a performance by Djuki Mala, a wonderfully athletic and exuberantly funny aboriginal dance troupe from the Northern Territories. Excited by the traditional dances of their culture, but also by Michael Jackson, Greek folk dance, Bollywood, and various hip-hop styles (their version of Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ was truly memorable!), they put on a show that contained all of this and more. In between numbers, video projections told their back-stories, adding an interesting and serious context to the (mainly comic) pieces.

Maisie and I went on to my friend Natasha’s red wine and cheese-themed birthday party. It was an afternoon affair and there were lots of adults and lots of kids (mainly 5-year-old girls) and the children played happily in a big gang in one room while the adults, in another room, appreciated the fine cheese and wine and conversation on offer. Everyone had a lovely time!

On a miserably cold and rainy Sunday afternoon I snuck off to the Elsternwick Classic to catch a special preview of ‘The Trip to Spain’ (complete with complementary paella and red wine). As in the two previous series, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set off on a foodie driving tour, bantering their way through plates of tasty-looking delicacies (lots of gambas and chorizo this time), trading ever-more outrageous Roger Moore impressions, debating their fame/popularity, and, in the most light-hearted manner, raging against the dying of the light. I thought it was wonderful, a return to the form of the original series (which is one of my favourite things ever!).

Week 247 – puppets and pools

Maisie started the week with a day at circus school (handily, the country’s leading circus skills academy is situated in a neighbouring suburb). She learnt to hula hoop and did lots of leaping, climbing and balancing – and she was very disappointed that she couldn’t go back the next day! But I was glad that we had a perfectly still sunny Tuesday to ourselves. The sea was like a pane of glass. I suggested that she come cycling with me as I went on my run. I wasn’t sure how far she’d manage to ride, but amazingly she did the whole 10 kilometres (the promise of cake got her through the last few kilometres!).

In the evening I went to see the new British film ‘Lady Macbeth’ (an adaptation of the novel ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’ by Leskov). It was a revisionist period drama, where the bartered bride effects monstrous yet calculated revenge on her nasty father-in-law and ineffectual husband. It was very stylish and the casting was boldly colour-blind, an unusual and effective choice, but I still didn’t really like the film very much.

Maisie and I went into town on Wednesday to try out the NGV’s current art activities for children. We popped into the Fiona Hall children’s exhibition at the NGV International, where Maisie made a paper collage of a fabulous animal (hers was a bird which she described as ‘always flying, only landing to have babies’!). We went on to the NGV Ian Potter (passing, on our way, the elegant yarn bombing pictured), to see artist Patrick Pound’s collection of collections (reviewed in Week 241). On my previous visit I had spotted an accompanying children’s questionnaire and had wondered whether it would interest Maisie. Happily, she was really engaged by it, running round trying to locate certain curiosities, finding things beginning with particular letters, listing all the birds she could think of, writing stories and drawing pairs of things. The final room was full of paintings and photographs of people sleeping (very eerie!) – the question here was to count how many you could see – Maisie gamely counted up to over a hundred before she admitted defeat.

On Friday, Rowena, who was enjoying a family ‘stay-cation’ at one of the plush Crown Casino hotels in the centre of Melbourne, invited Maisie and Tommy and I to hang out at the hotel pool with them! The kids were utterly thrilled by the whole experience, starting out with the swift lifts, followed by the huge view from Row’s 23rd floor bedroom window, a vista of the Yarra river winding towards Docklands, with glimpses, between closer towers, of the steady stream of container ships traversing the blue sea horizon. Later I enjoyed watching a slate-grey weather front rush in (and past).

The pool was even higher – on the 25th floor – and when we arrived we almost had it to ourselves. I wasn’t sure how brave the kids would be as neither of them have attempted to swim (i.e. been out of their depth in the water) since we were in Bali a couple of years ago, although they are both very comfortable splashing in the sea. Maisie had some armbands, and after wanting to be pulled along for a while, inspired by Sebastian (Row’s older son, Maisie’s age and completely confident in the water) she was brave enough to jump in and propel herself along on her own. Tommy was the revelation – clad in a borrowed floatation vest, his confidence knew no bounds – he couldn’t wait to barrel in off the side into my waiting arms, and after a few goes he didn’t want me to catch him, and wasn’t at all bothered by the plunge underwater. Holding on to my hands he splashed his way across the length of the pool countless times.

It was almost impossible to drag the kids away from the pool – with the exception of a few brief breaks for snacks, and a blissful 5-minute trip to the sauna (I left Tommy in Ante’s capable hands – when I got back, Tommy had learned to pull himself along the side of the pool and climb out on his own) – we were in there for almost 3 hours!

Maisie’s main desire over the holidays was to hang out with as many of her friends as possible, so most days we ended up spending several chilly (but generally bright) hours in the park as she competed on the hanging bars with various little girls (some of whom she knew, others she had just befriended). On Saturday we met up with Lou and Eliza in the park, and the two girls mirrored what Lou and I were doing – we chose one sunny bench on which to sit on and chat, and the girls chose another. It was all going so well, that we decided to go on to a cafe for lunch. Maisie and Eliza had one table, we had another – and we didn’t hear a peep out of them. It was so civilised!

In the afternoon I went to see Edgar Wright’s latest classy genre piece ‘Baby Driver’. It was a tautly edited, superbly choreographed, heist movie. It was also (despite no-one actually breaking into song) almost a musical. Early scenes reminded me of ‘La La Land’, nimble sequences of movements and visuals all tightly cued in to one of the many classic soul tracks that powered the movie (all songs playing on the iPod of the film’s main character). The A-list actors provided some fine moments too – particularly Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx as two very mean and savvy gangsters.

On Sunday we all went to see some family theatre down at the St Kilda winter festival. Held in a big drafty wooden box, ‘Loose Ends’ was a wonderfully quirkily inventive one-man show about loneliness and friendship and what happens when you sabotage that friendship. The stage was piled high with carefully labelled little boxes (‘old toys’, ‘party’, ‘robot’, ’friend’, ‘hope’ etc.) and you never knew what might pop out of them. A revolving light produced a shadow-scape of a train journey into town, a ball of wool became a puppet, a little train whizzed round a track chiming bars to the tune of happy birthday, a trolley became a ship, and wired up bits of junk made unexpected musical buzzes when touched. Best of all was a wonderfully precarious bicycle-powered Heath-Robinson-ish machine, which rolled and blew and levered little balls on a magical mystery tour. Maisie was entranced, but Tommy was rather scared of the dark, cowering on my lap and asking ‘when can we go home’ every five minutes – although luckily there was enough to keep him curious, so he did make it through to the end!

We’ve also found time for some creative activities over the holidays – Tommy discovered the joys of water-colour (see his picture of a storm), and Maisie’s been writing more stories (‘This might be a little bit scary for you’ is about a witch who is disappointed when there aren’t many letters in her mailbox!).