Tuesday, November 29, 2011

100 things: Street art in Shoreditch

Of all things to love in London, I think street art in Shoreditch has to come pretty near the top of the list. Yet, though I've walked through the area a hundred times, I'd never really looked at until this weekend, when a friend and I had an absolutely brilliant time doing the Shoreditch Street Art Trail by HiddenCity. Of course you could do this more cheaply on your own by just wandering around, but for a bit of a challenge and help finding hidden gems, I thoroughly recommend it to anyone, long term and new Londoners alike.

You play this treasure hunt style game in teams - either just one team of two-four people, for the fun of it, or against your friends. We coincidentally started the hunt at roughly the same time (ok, I'll brag, just AFTER though we finished well ahead!) as another pair of people and as we both like a bit of competition it did add a frisson of excitement to our trail. Once you've signed up and paid your £16 per team online, you find the start point (in Hoxton Square), text "START" to the contact number, and you're off with your first, faintly but not too horribly cryptic clue pointing you in the direction of your first piece of art. At each stage you have to first find it, and then answer a question about it, to get the next clue - and it's all timed. You get two half hour breaks in pubs to take a breather and the whole thing took us just over three hours. We sailed through most of it, with finding the art the hardest bit: we did cheat twice, once asking a friendly bartender who gave us a hint and once giving up and using the official "HINT" function only to receive a clue which confirmed we were in the right place already, but just hadn't spotted it yet.

Along the way you see some amazing art (I've tried to avoid photos of the clues here but warn you that some of the links below may include spoilers), yes Banksy included, but also Nick Walker, Scavage, Christiaan Nagal, Ben Eine, Space Invader, Mackay, Conor Harrington, Ronzo and others whose work is unattributed. Suddenly, also, you're looking for it everywhere, and we saw as much that wasn't part of the trail as that was. Shoreditch seems to be an absolute mecca for street artists and although not all of it is beautiful, quite a lot is absolutely amazing.

We had a brilliant time, and although we then slightly ruined our individualist credentials by eating in a commercial restaurant chain, we desperately tried to scrape them off the floor again afterwards by sampling cocktails from, amongst other places, Boho Mexica and the secret bar behind the fridge (ssssshhh) at the Breakfast Club in Shoreditch (though I don't remember the restaurant being where the official website says it is - even more of a mystery. Entirely possible that I was seeing it through a slight haze of alcohol however). I'd had a run of good but safe cocktails so decided to finish with a brave chilli and lemongrass margarita - it was an excellent end to an excellent evening.

Monday, November 28, 2011

100 things: St James's Park to the National Portrait Gallery

I've not got around to writing this post for a while and I think it's because, you know, the National Portrait Gallery is fab and all that but it didn't quite have the thrill of discovery of some of the other places I've been so far. This was perhaps particularly because of the unfortunate arrival, while I was going round the First Actresses exhibition, of a class of either sixth formers or  new undergraduates (young, reasonably trendy, monosyllabic) and their very loud, confident, slightly patronising teacher, whose voice echoed around the space and made it really difficult to focus on what I was looking at. In Italy tour guides were banned from a lot of places, a policy I liked.

However, I'm starting near the end. I began by getting off the tube at St James's Park. One of the things that I think a lot of non-Londoners don't realise is how walkable the city centre actually is. The tube map, though beautiful, is quite deceptive. St James's Park tube station in a way isn't the best place to start, despite its name, because it brings you to the middle of the south of the park rather than to one end, but it was a bit of a last minute thought, when I realised that I could do a good route through the park, up Whitehall and across Trafalgar Square to the gallery. The park was lovely, the leaves were all autumnal, the pelicans were unexpected but there were a few too many tourists about.

Whitehall was a bit disappointing too. I don't need all the fingers on one hand to remember the number of times I've knowingly walked up Whitehall, which is perhaps a bit rubbish for a so-called-Londoner, but I'm quite glad I haven't bothered more often. You think it's going to be so much more impressive than it is. I was struck by the number of red telephone boxes around the HM Revenue and Customs building. Do people particularly need to make phone calls when coming out of there or is it just to cater to the tourist photo opportunities? There were lots of those happening. My favourite things were these slightly random but impressive wrought iron gates and the memorial to the women of World War Two which I'm not sure I knew about before: shame it's in the middle of a busy road like the Cenotaph, but rather beautifully evocative with all the empty uniforms hung up on pegs: not only symbolising the work done by women during the war but also the way in which many of them had to give up those jobs again afterwards, probably mostly reluctantly.

Making it to Trafalgar Square I managed to get a rare photo of one of the lions without a person on it or in front of it. Thinking about it I should have checked out the Fourth Plinth - I think it's the Ship in the Bottle at the moment, and I do like the contemporary art concept - but instead I paused for some lunch and a quick squiz at St Martin's. There's a church which is successfully engaging with what's going on around it, frequently hosting demonstrations on its steps and running a programme of support for the homeless, without sacrificing some revenue opportunities like the Cafe in the Crypt.

Finally I got to the National Portrait Gallery. I do like it very much: I'm a fan of portraits generally and it definitely bears repeat visits as there is so much there, and the exhibitions change regularly, particularly downstairs with the modern sections. I've been quite recently (to see the BP Portrait Award as also recommended by Lucy, which was fab and I'd have willingly gone to again but has now finished) but it didn't matter at all. Looking at the website there is a lot that looks interesting which I didn't see. Though of course the main part of the gallery is free and I'm not normally a big one for paying for exhibitions if I don't have to, I did fork out £2 for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, which was really interesting even if I do slightly agree with the controversy over the winner, and also for the First Actresses exhibition as already mentioned, more expensive at £12. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to everyone unless you're particularly interested in the subject, even on days when annoying teachers aren't around, but I did my undergraduate dissertation on the actresses so felt it was worth a look, and there are some lovely portraits. I particularly liked the couple by Reynolds and one of Lavinia Fenton. I was also quite surprised by how many of them went on to become writers and playwrights: I've read about Mary Robinson but didn't realise there were quite a few others such as Elizabeth Inchbald and Sarah Siddons. You hear more often either about their scandalous reputations or how they left the stage when they got married: perhaps typical of how women have been portrayed in history.

I did also go up to the top floor restaurant as recommended, and the view did indeed look quite amazing over the rooftops towards Trafalgar Square on a rather misty day, but it seemed a bit too posh to be worth it for a solo cup of tea. The menu looked good: perhaps somewhere to go for a treat before the theatre? Not really for someone trying to rediscover London on a budget. Otherwise, not too bad an afternoon on balance: thanks Leah, Rose, and Lucy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

100 things: Southbank Centre

I met a friend of mine on the South Bank on Saturday and we immediately regretted it. She had her baby with her in a pram and the river bank was packed with people out to see the Christmas markets, or pose with the "characters" (why on earth? Vikings, Mickey Mouse..) and it was hard work manoeuvring through them. We did pause to enjoy a cup of Gluhwein though the whole thing does make me wonder why we have to pretend to be Germany to have Christmas markets. What happened to mulled wine and why the hideous fake chalet huts? Sigh, bah humbug, etc.

Anyway for some respite we went into the Southbank Centre, that megalithic arts centre that consists of the Hayward Gallery, the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We found our way to the badly signposted and incredibly badly positioned lift on the river side of the building, in a corner accessed by a narrow corridor around the side of a restaurant with a column and a cashpoint queue blocking the way. I've always found the Southbank Centre rather confusing to get into.  Still, it was worth it once we were there.

The first fantastic thing about the Centre is that you can pretty reliably guarantee there will be something going on to hear or look at. This weekend there was free live music happening in the Clore Ballroom as part of the London Jazz Festival. It's a crazy place, really, with an amazing potential therefore for events. It's open to the foyer on Level 2, albeit down some stairs, so that you can have a seated audience who feel as though they're in a separate space, but also anyone wandering past can see what's going on.

There are numerous exhibitions taking place, too, including one of artwork by prisoners. We had a look at the World Press Photo exhibition, much of which was rather horrific but, probably, necessary in some sense, photographs of war and suffering. My favourite by contrast was a wonderful shot by Andrew McConnell of a woman practising the cello, divided from a rundown street in the Congo by only a sheet of green corrugated plastic. Apparently she is a member of Central Africa’s only symphony orchestra, most of whom are self taught. It is a wonderful image.

The downsides were that they'd not noticed it was a mild day and the heating was on full blast - we had a rather hot baby getting increasingly unhappy so couldn't stay as long as we wanted to - and it's confusingly laid out, but all in all, I like the Southbank Centre. It's such a basic thing about being an accessible, welcoming arts space: that when people come in there will be something to do and a reason to be there, and on Saturday people had come in their droves. Not all of it is in the Centre's hands, either. There have been various attempts to close down the skate park underneath and snotty criticisms of it by art critics but it is, fabulously in contrast to the smart glass fronted brand heavy shops and cafes next door, still going strong. I don't think good art is created in some rarefied place where people don't dare to enter. That kind of art doesn't engage with reality, with humanity, in a way which is meaningful to me. Of course there is more to it than allowing the bustle of Londoners and tourists from tacky Christmas markets spread into your foyers, but it's all part of it.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

100 things: Battersea Power Station and the New Covent Garden Flower Market

 There are many iconic London buildings, but Battersea Power Station is one of my all time favourites. Partly, I've realised, because it's a real Londoner's - or at least British - landmark. It's not on all the t-shirts, it's not known all over the world, but there is a huge affection for it in the city itself. It is probably almost as important to us Londoners as Big Ben, the red London bus or the black taxi and feels a bit more like it's our very own.

It's not exactly one of those places, however, that you can just pop in and visit, so I was thrilled then when I got the chance to help my friend set up the flowers for an event there on Thursday, and even more so because it was the Gala Night, in aid of Great Ormond Street, for the ATP Grand Masters Finals. Me at 17 would have been hysterical with excitement, despite the fact that we went home long before any tennis players were anywhere near the place.

First though we went to the New Covent Garden Market, which was moved down to Battersea in 1974 when it was realised that the centre of town was a bit of a daft place to have a commercial market with big lorries visiting. We were just there to pick up some plates from the Flower Market which hadn't made it into the original order, so it was relatively deserted, but quite an amazing place. It's huge, for a start, going on forever inside and out - you really do wonder how they ever ran it in it's original home, though I can see why the traders at the time might have been pissed off at being forced out. It costs a fiver to get in (though we managed to wangle it for free, it being after trading hours) but you'd save a lot if you had a load of Christmas decorations and/or presents to buy.

Then we headed off for the Power Station itself. (Headed is an odd word, isn't it? Is it right? I feel like it ought to be "hade" - though I do know it isn't - past tenses are weird things). According to the latest developer's website the site has always been contentious, as when it was in use the power station was polluting first of the air and then of the river. It was also considered to be an eyesore. What I didn't know was that it was built in two halves, two chimneys at a time (divided in half lengthways). It still is contentious today as there have been various development proposals that haven't ended up happening. The current one seems to drown the building in expensive high rise apartment blocks.

However, though frequently host to illustrious events like the ATP Gala, the Power Station is dilapidated and crumbling. There is scaffolding round the towers, the entrance tunnel, and the whole of the inside; the ironwork is rusting; the tiling falling off. Weeds and bushes fill the inside, apart from the slightly scruffy events tent with one see through plastic end which admittedly looked better when it got dark and roving spotlights lit up the towers.

We got down to business, making trees and setting up flower arrangements. I mostly wired orchids (I didn't previously know this was a thing one could do), arranged a few leaves, lights and flowers artistically according to instruction, and helped load and unload, while my friend and her business partner (unashamed advertising here, they got me in there, they deserve it, but also just to say that the arrangements looked even better in real life, iPhones are not terribly good in the dark) worked their creative genius.

Meanwhile I, ridiculously, was secretly emotional while they were playing through the event videos to practise for the evening (yes, at the PRACTISE RUN OF THE VIDEOS - STILL NOT EVEN ANY ACTUAL TENNIS PLAYERS). Sorry, did I say that at 17 I would have been hysterical with excitement? Well I managed to avoid actual hysteria but it was still a tiny bit thrilling. I did wonder how easy it would be, if I'd had black clothing with me, to just join the hundreds of waitressing staff milling around and stay... but by then we were all exhausted and going back to my friend's house for beef bourgignon and wine felt like a better prospect for (maybe only slightly more) sensible, 32 year old me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

100 things: Vauxhall Bridge to South Bank

I've walked along South Bank a hundred times and did again yesterday evening, but it's going to have to wait for another time to write it up for 100 things because I was meeting a friend and sometimes (just sometimes!) life has to come first.

The Vauxhall Bridge part of this walk was therefore done in rather a rush, because I was late, so it turned into more of a route march than a meander. However, it's a part I don't remember walking down before and it was my favourite time of the evening in London, so I enjoyed it nonetheless. I might have to do this again sometime too. I was slightly nervous of taking the photo of the famous MI6 (or SIS) building and lo and behold, the moment I had, a man in a suspiciously bulky vest and all in black appeared hurrying towards me. I sauntered on, trying to look innocuous.

 It's terrible for taking photos, but I love a London twilight. It's often not spectacular; quite the contrary. Everything goes rather grey and slightly misty, until there is barely any colour left at all. Yet at the same time, the lights are coming on, and London is lit up in a golden glow. Gold and grey - beautiful. Vauxhall Bridge was a good place to start for this because you get the view up the river to the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye beyond. As I hurried along, past St Thomas's, I heard Big Ben toll the half hour, as a traffic cone floated past. The gardens of the hospital, facing onto the river, were where I watched the fireworks from on Millennium Eve. We'd nearly got suffocated in the crowds but managed to find a slightly more peaceful spot under a tree and drank champagne before walking home through miles upon miles of traffic free but people crowded streets - it felt apocalyptic.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ministry of Stories

I went to a training session on Tuesday to become a writing mentor for the Ministry of Stories, and had a really lovely evening. The training was well judged and enjoyable, both for those of us who'd done a hundred of these kinds of things before and for those who were newer to it all. The Ministry is based on Dave Egger's 826 Valencia project in San Francisco, which I first read about in an interview with Eggers in the Guardian last year. It was only mentioned right at the end but I'm going to quote it here because I immediately fell in the love with the whole concept:
[Egger's] passion also led him to establish 826 Valencia, a place where children can come after school for help with their homework and to learn to write stories; it's right across the street. It's a screen-free zone, run pretty much entirely by volunteers, and has been so successful that the model has been rolled out across America (there are now branches in six other cities) ."Shall we go over there?" he says.
We scoot across the road. When Eggers and his team signed the lease at 826 Valencia Street in 2002, the landlord told them the building was zoned for retail; they could put their tutoring centre at the back but out front they would have to sell something. Eggers hit on the idea of pirate store. Not a kitschy place about pirates; a store for pirates. Every 826 now has a shop up front: they're welcoming, the children love them and they raise funds (in Brooklyn, it's a superhero supply store; in Boston, it's a Bigfoot research centre). Today, the children are just arriving, which, as Eggers says, "is pretty cute to see" – though perhaps it's more touching to watch the volunteers, who come in all shapes and sizes, and who give their time so willingly.
It's in the pirate store that I fall into a swoon of happiness. When I was small, a favourite book told the story of a bunch of pirates who were not much good at the stuff with planks and cutlasses; they suffered from seasickness and, on one voyage, contracted mumps. As we survey the scene – the staff, young and smiling, invent all the stock themselves – I think how my pirates would be right at home here, shopping for peg-leg oil, emergency treasure burial sand and tins of mermaid repellent/bait ("Sprinkle a small amount of this substance into the sea. Sometimes they come closer, sometimes they swim away. It's complicated"). (Cooke, 2010)
The Ministry of Stories has a Monster Supply shop, on Hoxton Road, along the same principles, selling supplies to Monsters with humans allowed in on sufference, and the writing centre is behind, offering workshops for school groups and drop in sessions after school. Nick Hornby is supporting it so they've had some good publicity, and are now going to be one of the new National Portfolio organisations which gives them security for the future.

The shop is brilliant and, as I say, is an attention grabbing concept, but now I've actually been to take part in sessions there I am a fully signed up disciple of the working methods of the centre itself, which to be honest for me had been rather cast in the shade beforehand. As part of the training session we were taken through a version of the workshop. The participants work as a group at first, coming up with characters and a setting for their story, suggested by anyone in the group and then democratically chosen by a secret ballot of hands. Even as adults we went down a slightly bonkers though predictably left wing political route of a monster banker (a real monster with a good heart, but with monstrous humans as colleagues) and his "personification of money" colleague, Buck, a grubby man with hay fever dressed in a suit made of dollar bills. I imagine children are far more imaginative. After the story has been co-written up by the group up to a suitably cliff-hanger stopping point, participants go off with their mentors to finish it off themselves. Normally it's 2-4 children or young people per mentor but we were one on one for our practice go.

It was amazing. I took the writing role, and my mentor, Ben, was obviously only just giving it a go for the first time so to start with it felt a bit obtrusive. I'd normally not want help and would just sit in the corner getting on with on my own (apparently this is a common pupil type), but once we'd both got used to it, it was incredible having this supportive and enthusiastic presence next to me. We'd talked about open and closed questions so it didn't feel he was helping me write the story (which as I'm stubborn and like doing things for myself would have been no good at all) so much as just enabling me to have the confidence to get on with it, encouraging me to keep going rather than self-edit too much, and asking good questions when I got stuck. I used to write creatively all the time as a child but at some point along the way I think decided I was clearly no good and so nowadays, bar a bit of experimentation with blogging like this, hardly write at all. Whenever I try I don't get very far. However, on Tuesday, I was completely fired up with enthusiasm and if I had had more time, think I might even have finished it. I'm not saying it was a work of art, far from it, but it's the furthest I've got with a story for years. It was fun hearing other people discussing their different versions, too. I almost wish I could find a way to pose as a twelve year old and go along as a participant not a mentor - I hope they start some adult classes some time. It's a completely different experience from being taught, which is half the point.

Just for fun, here is my end to the story. I forgot to take the typed up beginning which we did as a group, so to set the scene: the monster banker is called Tom and his secret desire (which has not yet become apparent in the story but was decided on by the group) is to convert all the monstrous humans into real monsters and start an ethical monster bank. They're on a team building weekend in a forest, and Buck is tying a barrel to a plank, up a tree, with Tom in the barrel. All you can see of him is his four hairy feet. Just before my story begins, Buck has given an evil laugh and Tom has cried for help to the gaggle of bankers below. Remember I wrote this in only about 20 minutes, ok?!
 There was a deathly silence broken only by the noise of raindrops falling through the leaves. Tom wished he could see the bankers but his head was stuck in the barrel.
Buck gave up trying to tie the barrel to the plank and laughed again. He gave the barrel a nudge. Tom screamed. "Help!" he shouted. "Heeeeeelp!
This had all gone terribly wrong. He'd had all those dreams and hopes for the weekend. He'd wanted to convert the horrible human bankers into monsters. He stared into the darkness of the inside of the barrel. A tear ran down over his furry cheek. He felt as though he'd failed. He would never manage to start his monster bank. He thought about how he could try and get out and whether he even wanted to try.
Meanwhile Buck was getting bored. Tom had gone awfully quiet and he'd wanted a bit more of a reaction than this. He kicked the barrel a bit harder and it wobbled to and fro on the branch. Nothing. "Er... Tom... are you still in there?" he asked aggressively. He was starting to feel a bit anxious, too. He needed people like Tom. He was nothing without bankers. He couldn't shove Tom off the branch, because then he might die, and then what would happen to Buck?
"Erm, yes..." said Tom, slightly plaintively. "I'm still here. I want to get out, Buck." Buck scratched his grubby head. Suddenly he felt an itching. At first, he thought it was just that he hadn't washed his hair in a month, but it somehow felt shaggier and thicker than normal. His feet itched too, and his hands. The dollar bill suit was straining at the seams. His gold plated buttons were bursting. Something strange was happening!
 And there I had to stop.  Go and check out the website - www.ministryofstories.org if you've missed it above. They're great.

100 things: Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Visiting a steam museum admittedly feels like an eccentric thing to do as a 32 year old woman. However, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum's standpipe tower, designed to look like an Italian campanile (appropriately enough for me!) is a local landmark where I live, I'm sure I must have visited as a child but couldn't remember anything much about it, and in the summer you can hear the hoot of the steam train from my parents' garden, so I felt this one had to go on the list. At £9.50 it's not exactly cheap but they give you a year's pass so I suppose if you have children it's better value. According to the website they house the "finest collection of stationary steam pumping engines in the world" so at least it's a good cause.

It's a sweet little place, manned mainly by volunteers I think but well presented and well thought out: there are good displays and lots of interactivity including the chance to emulate a Tudor night soil man and sieve "sewage" for treasure. Brilliant. The building was originally a pumping station for London's water, and an important one. The machines are amazing. At weekends they have some of them running (you can check the website for a schedule) but even stationary they're quite incredible - the 100 inch engine is, again according to the website, the largest surviving single cylinder beam engine in the world, and the 90 inch is the largest working one. I have no idea what a single cylinder beam engine is, but it's awe inspiring - my photos here do it no justice. It's also rather beautifully designed with its columns and lights.

The other nice exhibit is the working steam train, as mentioned before. Rides weren't running the day I was there but you can have a go not only at being a passenger but also, I think by special arrangement, as a driver. Then when you've had enough, there's a café, slightly limited shop, garden and blacksmiths' studios to explore. (For the grammar pedants, yes, more than one blacksmith and more than one studio!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Italy: Venice

It's such an obvious thing to do but I absolutely fell in love with Venice. Despite the crowds, despite the advertising hoardings covering up the Bridge of Sighs, despite the enormous cruise ships and the tourism. I was recommended a fabulous book called Venice for Pleasure and so, although I went to the Basilica di San Marco, and the Doges Palace, and the Gallerie Dell'Accademia, I also spent quite a lot time just wandering around the streets in the company of J.G. Links, having gargoyles and leaning campaniles pointed out to me and finding quieter places like a little coffee shop selling salami folded into hot foccacia and tiny crumbly chewy Italian biscuits which I ate in the nearby square, by Vivaldi's parish church, and a bar in the Public Gardens where birds tried to eat my peanuts while I sipped a bright orange sour Spritz, an acquired taste I think.

The weather was wonderful for two of the days I was there but on the middle day there was an enormous rainstorm when I discovered how slippery the stone streets are, especially when wearing flip flops! That evening I wandered out into the still damp Piazza San Marco which the night before had been full of tourists. It was not quite empty but far quieter and I ordered a twelve euro glass of wine (it did at least come on a nice tray with crisps and a glass of water) and sat for over an hour, listening to the musicians play songs from the musicals. It was clichéd and magical, all at once.