The Autumn Season

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Like most cities, London sees September shift from pop-up restaurants and pop concerts to a parade of plays, operas, history exhibitions and weighty films to get you thinking after the summer break. Here’s my list of things I’ve seen and would recommend:

Image use embargoed until 7.30pm 28-09-17

1. Aida at ENO: superb singing, including from the chorus, and most definitely a star in the form of this new Aida herself. Great sets – hats, masks and leopard skin a go-go – of the Hollywood musical kind and none the worse for that.

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2. The girl from the north country – at the Old Vic and now sold out, but the cast recording is available online and well worth the price for some gutsy, gritty, beautiful performances.

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3. Oslo, which is now transferring to the West End. I liked the political negotiation parts best rather than the drawing room marriage comedy, though despite the good cast in London, I wonder how I’d have felt if I’d seen Jennifer Ehle in New York.

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4. The Scythians at the British Museum – wonderful gold pieces discovered in the 18th century frozen in the Siberian tundra, along with the remains of silk, cheese, pottery and wooden coffins. All the wrong postcards, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to actually see the show. Quite big, but can be done in an hour. The BM is on fire still after their American Dream show earlier this year.

Your email back, however

Synaesthete would like to meet

Other synaesthetes describe their experiences as pleasant whilst for me it is a constant sensory overload…. pick up any cheap paperback that uses too many mixed metaphors and that is my day to day, with all attempts at clarity squandered by confusing, muddled leaps of imagery. I see fireflies when a tyre screeches, smell fried onions when I step on an upturned plug…

Online dating marked a huge step. At first I found the profile I created absolutely disgusting. Reading through it, the paragraph smelt of tar and vinegar and was full of sticky, tooth-chewing words. I had no hope of response to such a squalid, acrid thing, and imagined that anyone to whom it might in any way appeal must have some kind of perversion I did not want to share. You must understand that it was not just that I did not have high hopes, I actively dreaded who would be interested in such a thing. I gave it to my doctor to edit, and he gave me two thumbs up, but I could tell by his tweedy, neoprenaged vowels, he was just being kind.

Your email back, however, smelt like a sea breeze: that was all it took. I didn’t have to read about the interests you listed, your hobbies or your star sign. It was that sea breeze smell, cutting through the snow and mown grass, that convinced me this was a chance I had to take. I organised a meeting.

You chose a spot at Piccadilly, within sight of Eros and the Criterion. I like Piccadilly Circus; the exhaust fumes and the chatter present me with a fresh inky blue, it’s almost precisely the colour of the line on the Tube map. To me the flashing neon adverts are a barbershop quartet suffering the giggles, which pleases me, and the tourists’ interbraiding accents cause a firework display of neurological responses. The taxi drivers’ swearing is accompanied by different shades of silver, squeaky and lickable.

As I waited, the rain made a pink overture against my jacket. And your colour, when you introduced yourself? You must not be insulted, but you were blank. A soundless, tasteless, brilliant blank.

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From “Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams”, a book I’m rushing to buy after hearing this extract read aloud on the Backlisted podcast.

Sao Paolo

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This floating display method in the Sao Paolo Museum of Art look stunning. The building itself – a glass box floating between a brilliant red pair of bands, and set in a lush green garden isn’t bad either.

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Passmore Edwards Sailors Palace

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At a time when government seems to be relying more on old-fashioned philanthropy to keep services running, rather exert itself to help, I was intrigued to see this building in East London recently.

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Passmore Edwards was a philanthropist of the 1890s and 1900s whose other endowments include the library that is now part of the Bush Theatre in West London. In the new century, he endowed this mock Tudor gatehouse to be a place of rest for international sailors staying in London on leave.

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Poignantly the project, opened by the Kaiser and Edward VII, fell through when WW1 broke out. But the building remains, and more can be read about it here and here.

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Belief

Beyond Belief is a BBC podcast and one of the best out there: a changing panel of experts debates for half an hour each week, intercut halfway through with “the view from the street”.

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Thus a debate about whether you can enjoy CS Lewis without knowing the Christian and mythic subtexts to Narnia, and if he’d even get published nowadays (“I was asked to rewrite Pilgrim’s Progress without the Christianity, which I thought a bit much.”) was interspersed with a dad talking about writing a book to explain her Muslim heritage to her daughter. A panel talking about the symbolism of hair covered both young Sikh girls claiming the turban for themselves and an Afro-Carribean woman who took on dreadlocks and a whole lot of politics at once.

I’ve also listened to episodes on state-funded religion in Belgium, the effect of the Somme on religious belief and Magna Carta. Each debate is thoughtful, well-informed and intellectually provoking. In no way does it seek to convert or proselytize, but its discussion provides an intensely human experience, reminding us of the importance of having opinions and values, understanding where they came from and accepting others’ paths.

Rice-soft air

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With hieroglyphs of bushes and trees /

they write and write, /

now pressing on their pens, now not /

Ah on wet paper /

with an invisible brush /

On the soft, rice-like air.

Olga Sedokova. Photos Prague, 2017.

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Aratea

At seemingly random points across the composition (but not at all random in reality) the page is studded with tiny squares of gold leaf. These are the stars in the constellation depicted. The text, which runs to several pages, explains that the stars rotate ceaselessly between the celestial poles, and that these are guarded by the bears of Crete, who had protected Jupiter as a baby from his cannibalistic father, Saturn, in return for which they had been set in the sky to mark the poles. They are known as Helice of the seven stars and Cynosura, who has never deceived Phoenician sailors guided by her. Between them…runs a giant snake, like a river, with stars along its body…These are the constellations which we still know as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, with the Plough.

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Tantalising writing by Christopher de Hamel about the Leiden Aratea, here. Image from Medieval Fragments.

House of Illustration

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I really love the Kings Cross redevelopment, especially as I recently got to visit it on a sunny and warm spring day that really reminded me that the year had turned from winter now.

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One part of it is the House of Illustration, which of course has a beautifully illustrated map on its website to help you find it, and also houses this iPad piece by Linda Kitson.