Monday, 29 March 2010

Gather ye (Tudor) rosebuds while ye may (Revised March 2011)

Yesterday on Palm Sunday, the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe held their annual Easter fair. I needed to stock up on the special sugar I use to sprinkle on the cardamom flavoured loaves I hand bake from time to time. Unfortunately there was no sugar on sale. Instead I bought rye bread, several cheeses and some delicious pastries. To make my excursion worthwhile, I decided to use my Royal Palaces season ticket and pop along to the Tower of London.

The Duke of Wellington ordered the moat to be drained in the first half of the 19th century. In more recent years the dry moat has been the setting for a range of activities, including demonstrations of medieval and latter weaponry. It made a perfect vista for me to sit down in front of and scoff the last of my pastries,

From a window of the restored medieval palace, I took a picture of Tower Bridge. If I had had more time, since it was such a fine day, I would have taken the opportunity to go over and see the permanent exhibition held there as well as go up to the high level walkway. Apparently, depending which tower you use to access the walkway, you arrive either by lift or have to climb the many steps to the top. Exploring the Tower of London is quite a work-out in itself if you plan to negotiate the numerous steep narrow stone staircases and walk along the castle walls to pass from one tower to another.

In St Thomas Tower, the bedchamber and chantry of the medieval King Edward I have been recreated to how they might have looked in his time. I was very impressed by the bed; it was truly king size. But then King Edward I was nicknamed Longshanks because of his great height. When Edward’s tomb in Westminster Abbey was opened up in 1774 his bones were measured. As a result he is thought to have been around 6 foot 2, a similar height to Henry VIII. At 6 foot 4, the 15th century King Edward IV would have towered over both his namesake Edward I and Henry VIII.

The little chantry leading off the bedchamber was where Edward I would have prayed in private. The rich red, greens and yellows of the tiled floor and the multi-coloured stained glass windows echo the exuberance colour scheme in the rest of the King’s private apartments. In a separate audience chamber sits a replica of a medieval throne as well as a green, red and gilt carved wooden screen, separating a small altar from the main room. .
Beauchamp Tower

I would quite happily sling those miscreants who daub local walls with graffiti into the darkest recesses of the Tower and leave them there. By contrast, as a schoolgirl I was greatly moved by some of the inscriptions at the Tower of London, especially one carved into the stone wall of the Beauchamp Tower. It simply read “Marmaduke Nevile 1569.” I had no idea either at the time or since who Marmaduke Nevile was. Clearly he had fallen foul of Queen Elizabeth I. In the same year other members of the Neville family attempted to free Mary, Queen of Scots in their abortive attempt to topple Elizabeth, place Mary on the throne and restore England to the Catholic faith.

In the Bloody Tower, the interior of Sir Walter Raleigh’s prison cell has been staged as it might have looked during his many years of confinement. Sir Walter had been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who had been move than happy to turn a blind eye to his raids on Spanish ships just so long as he ensured she received a generous share of the resulting booty. Unlike Queen Elizabeth, her successor James I was keen to foster good relations with Spain. Thus the hapless Sir Walter found himself imprisoned and later executed in the Tower.

When it came to one of his own favourites, King James was not above manipulating the courts to ensure the condemned man escaped execution, despite being tried and found guilty of capital murder. The king’s favourite, Robert Carr, had fallen madly in love with the young Frances Howard. Unfortunately their romance was hampered by the fact Frances was still married to the Earl of Essex. Robert’s friend, Sir Thomas Overbury thoroughly disapproved of Frances Howard and the feeling was mutual. Attempts were made to force Overbury to accept a diplomatic mission to Moscow and thereby lessen his influence over Robert. When he refused what was in effect a royal command, King James had Thomas imprisoned in the Tower in 1613, where he died a few months later. After several years of rumours as to what had really caused Overbury's untimely death, a number of people were subsequently accused of having plotted to poison Overbury. King James panicked when his one-time favourite, Robert Carr, and his wife were accused of being involved. King James feared he might be implicated in turn if his former favourite became desperate to save his own neck. As king, James was able to have the sentence of death placed upon Sir Robert Carr and Frances commuted to life imprisonment and therefore ensured their future silence. He pardoned them both a number of years later. The other four guilty co-conspirators, including the then Lieutenant of the Tower Gervaise Helwys, were not so fortunate and were executed. Amongst their number was a woman called Anne Turner, who had been in the service of Lady Frances Howard. Anne found the apothecary, Simon Franklyn, who supplied the poisons used to kill Overbury. The poisons were concelaed in tarts and jellies sent to Overbury in the Tower. Anne had started a fashion for dyeing her ruff neck and wrist bands yellow with saffron. As part of her punishment, the judge decreed that she be executed wearing yellow ruffs "so that the same might end in shame and detestation." As a final grim act, her executioner likewise sported her once fashionable trademark yellow ruffs. A tiny wooden walled cell near Sir Walter Raleigh’s relates Overbury’s tragic story and has a table set out with the type of foodstuffs used to murder him.

I once again went inside the Cradle Tower. Unlike last year, I was well aware this time that what I had taken to be ghostly voices chanting was simply a sound recording of a man reciting part of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. It forms part of a small exhibition commemorating the religious martyrs, both Protestant and Catholic, imprisoned in the Tower. Anne Askew was amongst their unfortunate numbers. So severely was she racked by Henry VIII's courtiers (the usual torturers had refused to take part in what was an illegal act even for the time) that Anne had to be carried to her death at the stake by chair. 
Traitor's Gate

The steps leading up from Traitors’ Gate are in a remarkably good condition, given their extreme age. I assume, like so much else in the Tower, they have been restored. The exterior of the White Tower, the original Tower of London, is still being renovated.

Where the scaffolding has been removed, the White Tower is in impressive shape. Henry VIII added the leaded cupolas and the gilded weathervane to celebrate Anne Boleyn’s coronation. Anne would have spent the night before her coronation in her royal apartments at the Tower.

It used to be thought that Anne was kept in the black and white timbered Queen’s House by Tower Green, when she returned to the Tower as Henry’s prisoner only a few years later. However, it has now been established that Anne was confined to the same building where she had spent the eve of her coronation. Not surprisingly, after Anne’s execution, her royal apartments fell out of favour and into disrepair before finally being demolished. Recent archaeological work has established that they once stood, close by the White Tower.

I was able to go inside St Peter ad Vincula, the Tudor chapel where Anne Boleyn, her cousin Catherine Howard and former sister-in-law, Jane Rochford are also buried. So too is the 16 year old Lady Jane Grey, the 9 Day Queen and her husband. During Queen Victoria’s reign, she had the Tudor chapel restored and as part of the process, attempts were made to identify the human remains. I would love to know how the Victorians were able to distinguish between the decapitated earthly remains of Katherine Howard and Jane Grey or Anne Boleyn and Jane Rochford. Any jewellery or clothing left on the corpse would have legally belonged to the executioner, so there was unlikely to have been any personal effects with which to identify them. Moreover, unlike Katherine Parr whose preserved body could be viewed centuries later at Sudeley Castle, the bodies of Henry VIII’s earlier wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, would have been hastily placed in the ground of St Peter’s with no stone to mark the grave and certainly no embalming to preserve the body. Given its proximity to the River Thames, it is likely that the dankness of the grave would have also speeded up decomposition.

Leaving the Tower behind, I walked to Tower Hill underground station. Nearby is a large section of the original Roman wall which once surrounded the city of Londinium. By the wall is a replica statue of the roman emperor Trajan. “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal” was supposed to have been whispered by a slave into the ears of a Roman Emperor as he rode in his triumphal procession. The saying proved all too true for the three tragic Tudor Queens, who ended their brief lives on Tower Green.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

From Russia with love: part two

After our travails with the East Germans, the Russian border guards were required to check through our luggage for any subversive material that we might be trying to smuggle in.Let the train take the strain One guard began to go through my dozen or so strong collection of historical novels. After the first three, he grew bored and gave up. At the time I had a copy of Cosmopolitan with me and I later discovered that the adult male supervisors in the pioneer camp were keen to get their hands on it. I passed it on to them once I had removed all the salacious images of decadent western women posing in next to nothing. Whereupon their interest diminished rapidly and they promptly returned the magazine to me unread.

From the Moscow train station we went by coach to the Young Pioneer’s camp in the suburb of Krasnaya Presnya, the site of prominent revolutionary activity in 1905. As we neared our destination, I saw an imposing pre-revolutionary house in the wooded hills directly in front of us. Given my interest in architecture I was disappointed when the coach veered to the left instead of continuing straight ahead. It transpired that the mansion was in fact a children’s hospital. We finally stopped at the gates of our pioneer camp. There were rows of clapping young Russians and a brass band to greet us as we stepped off the coach, weary from our long journey. I have never received such an enthusiastic reception either before or since.

Once inside the grounds, we were shown to our quarters in a two storey red and white wooden building. We shared a dormitory together which was fine. We were aghast to discover that the loo cubicles did not have doors and seemed designed for far smaller children than ourselves. Even worse was the fact that the communal showers did not have separate cubicles. At the beginning of our holiday, two of us would shower at a time, each at different ends of the shower room. By the end of our stay in Russia, we were showering together without giving it a second thought. Our attitudes might well have been influenced in part by a day trip to a public swimming pool in Moscow, where we saw naked woman of all shapes and ages showering and changing together with no apparent hang-ups about either their nudity or their bodies.

Once we had changed, we went down to the dining room to eat. A huge banquet had been set out for us. I eagerly took some blackberry jam. To my dismay it turned out to be caviar. Faced with the two options nowadays, I would still choose the blackberry jam over caviar. When we were finally replete we discovered to our alarm that the meal was in the way of a snack before our dinner, which was scheduled for only a few hours later. The amount of food we were expected to eat was just too much for us to handle and we had to insist that one meal a day was cut out. When I subsequently fell ill and was kept in the sanatorium for a few days, I got my visitors to smuggle food out rather than in.

I always felt that the Russian pioneer camp was very similar to what I had heard about American camps of the era. Young children were packed off during the long summer holidays to camps in the countryside, where their days were packed with a range of activities to occupy mind and body. National flags were raised and daily oaths of allegiance to the state sworn. It was not a state of affairs that appealed to me. I had refused to join the Brownies as my 9 year old self deemed it to be too authoritarian an organisation. Nor did I want to wear the uniform. The young pioneers did have white shirts and red ties but they usually wore their own clothes most of the time.The first cultural clash came when we discovered we were expected to get up at 8 o’clock in the morning, trudge down to the courtyard and do 10 minutes of vigorous exercise to music before heading off to breakfast. We staged a mini revolution of our own at such indignities, until we negotiated a settlement whereby we would ensure a token presence each day but not the full complement of schoolgirls.

Given the heavy losses they had sustained, the memory of the Second World War was kept very much alive on the camp. They had a small museum devoted to the subject on site. I remember in a craft class in which some Russian children produced a collage on a militaristic theme, using strips of straw and bearing the dates: 1941-45. I felt like making a collage bearing the dates 1939-45 but diplomatically refrained from doing so. The Second World War was something I was very familiar with as a child. I first grew up in a household where the adults had been on active service. I know by heart many of the most popular war songs of the period. Concrete pill boxes were pointed out to me when we took trips into the countryside. My primary school even had air shelters still standing. To my astonishment there was another child in my junior school who knew nothing about the war. Apparently her parents had wanted to shield her from all such knowledge. Nowadays there are children in the UK who have absolutely no knowledge about the cataclysmic events of the 1940s either. One contestant on a television show, whose own grandparents or great grandparents would have lived through the war years, thought that Winston Churchill was America’s first black president. She came to this astounding conclusion having seen a statue of him in London and assumed that the dark metal reflected his actual skin colour.

 Within a day or so of my arrival, I decided to take a swim in one of the nearby freshwater pools. No-one else wanted to join me. It was perhaps not the wisest of decisions on my part. I soon noticed that there were dead fish floating on the surface. Whether it was because of the fish or because I was still not fully recovered from my recent illness, I had a relapse of the quinsy that had left me so debilitated only weeks before. From Russia with love:part oneConsequently, I spent several days in a sanatorium. The nursing staff were kind but it was impossible to get them to understand what I had been suffering from in England. They resorted to painting my tonsils with some kind of tincture. The women also helped themselves to the contents of my Mary Quant Blush baby compact, applying it all over their face. I tactfully refrained from telling them it was only meant for their cheeks. During my illness, the others went off to a football match. Apparently there were armed police and the unruly crowd would hoot and holler until the police turned around to glare at them. They would then fall silent again until the police had turned their backs before starting up once more. I did not mind missing the football. Although a number of my female friends have been keen football fans since girlhood, it never appealed to me. The only live match I have ever been to was at Chelsea and that was on sufferance at the urging of a male friend of mine.

On one of our day’s excursions we paid a visit to the famous GUM department store on Red Square, standing across the way from Lenin's  red and black granite mausoleum. GUM was never a single department store but rather, since the 19th century, a covered arcade of different shops. Much had been made of the shortage of consumer goods in Russia at the time but at least the situation for those at the bottom of the ladder did not appear as dire as seems to be the case today, where the operators of the free market have as little interest in the well-being of the masses as any despotic Tsar. Lenin must surely be spinning in his grave at the way key state assets were plundered at the break-up of the Soviet Union by a favoured few, with the connivance of corrupt officialdom.  We went to his tomb long before such woeful chicanery was allowed to flourish. When we queued up to see Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square, I was struck by how delicate his profile looked.

Being VIPs or Very Important Proletariat we were usually always taken to the front of any queue as happened on our trip around the Kremlin itself. At the time I only had a box brownie to record my holiday and the quality of my pictures lack the clarity of modern digital cameras. Nevertheless, what strikes me most is the fact that despite the passage of over 3 decades, were it not for the inferior quality of the earlier photographs, you would be hard pressed to tell which era the respective photographs of the cathedrals of the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Ivan the Terrible Bell were taken in. One major difference is that all the cathedrals appear to have undergone major renovation since my time and indeed the scaffolding around the Cathedral of the Assumption in my photograph suggests it had begun whilst I was still there.

We went inside the cathedrals and other buildings within the Kremlin. But what most caught my attention were the intriguing monuments to the follies of the Tsars standing outside. The Tsar Cannon was commissioned in 1586 by Tsar Feodor. We were told it was the largest howitzer ever built. We were also told it had never been used on the battlefield. Nearby is the Tsar Bell. In the early 18th century the Russian Empress Anna Ioanovna commissioned the largest bell in the world, coming in at over 6 metres high and wide. The bell has never been rung as it broke before it could be removed from its casting pit. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias about Ancient Egyptian pharaohs could equally apply to the hubris of the Tsars:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away"

Even from the poor quality of my photographs, I can see that the Tsar Bell and the Cannon have been restored in recent years, allowing modern visitors to see the rich detail on both objects, which had become obscured by centuries of grime in my time. One thing undiminished by time is the marble and crystal chandelier splendour of the metro. The Russians were rightly proud of their splendid underground stations and they certainly put our own Tubes stations to shame.

Whilst we were in Russia we were told that the London Underground system had flooded, a fact we could scarcely believe credibly but we were so out of touch with the West, having no access to telephones or newspapers other than that stalwart of British communism the Morning Star, that after a while we were no longer quite sure what to believe. The Russians we met seemed to envisage London as something out of a Dickensian novel with pea-souper fogs shrouding the streets. I am sure our own views of Russia were as distorted as any the Russians had of England. I know I thought they were spies around every corner. I was alarmed when my friend Kim took photographs of submarines in the river Moskva, thinking she would be hauled away at any moment on espionage charges.  I was surprised to encounter a horse drawn funeral cortege one day on our way back to the camp. The coffin was open and the old woman wore a shroud of white lace and in her hands held an orthodox wooden cross, a symbol that had survived the vicissitudes of the Russian Revolution. Only her waxy yellowish complexion gave the lie to her simply being asleep.

Another event I remember vividly was travelling to a pre-revolutionary mansion which had been restored. We were obliged to remove our shoes and wear blue plastic slippers to walk on the parquet floors. The house had been constructed with concealed corridors, along which the servants or more likely serfs of past centuries could pass along to do there chores without coming into sight of the family. Unfortunately I cannot recall precisely where that mansion stood. I do remember going to see the Bolshoi Ballet. We were seated in the stalls and the rigid smiles of the ballerinas, which probably looked appealing from the gods, looked frankly terrifying at close proximity. That was probably the first time I had been to a ballet since performing in an amateur production as a child. I was dressed in a white sheet and wore a golden crown to represent a candle and other children were moths. Someone tried to sabotage my career as a future prima donna assoluta by stealing my costume before the performance. Somehow the adults must have summoned up a replacement because the performance went ahead with me in it. We were also taken to see the circus at its permanent arena in Moscow. Being school children I think we were most impressed by a tour of an ice-cream factory as we were given a box to take away with us. At that time Russian ice-cream was far superior to its non-dairy British counterpart.

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that the crew that took us down the Moskva River had not heard of the Russian folksong “The Song of the Volga boatmen.”  My most embarrassing memory was of a fancy dress party. I was dressed in a sari fashioned out of bed-sheets by one of our teachers. Another schoolgirl put on a leotard and made a pair of pointed ears to go as a cat.
“Mark my words, “ I told the others, “It’s clear who’s going to win the prize for best costume,” pointing knowingly in the feline impersonator’s direction. To our consternation we discovered that the Russian idea of a costume ball was just to wear elaborate face masks. It was with even more of a blush that I stepped up to receive my award for the best outfit and opened the ball with a dance with a young man, who had been designated Tsar to my Tsarina.

On our final night, one of our guides, Vladimir, got rather drunk on the endless toasts in vodka. We all made promises to keep in touch but even if we did, it was not for long and sadly international politics meant we could never return the compliment and invite the Russian children to stay with us in England. But I like to think that in a small way we helped to cut through the propaganda on both sides and made us realise that despite the political situation, at heart we were really not very different from one another.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Not the ghost of a chance

Yesterday, Cristo and the Couple came up to my flat to discuss issues relating to the upkeep of the house. It was the first time we had all been together since we last took part in a local pub quiz late last year, which we had won hands down. However, I have not been back there due to a prominent sign on display banning the wearing of hats. As I was sporting a 1930s hat adorned with diamante clips at the time, I decided it was not a sufficiently appealing venue to persuade me to forgo my love of wearing vintage millinery in public.

Cristo was the first to arrive at my flat. To my surprise he claimed he had never been invited inside before. It was a genuine oversight on my part. I later realised he must have been abroad when we had held previous meetings here. As with all new guests to my home, I gave him a tour of my cabinet of curiosities. He said he was inviting himself back for the extended tour as I had had to stop when the Couple arrived.Voyage autour de ma chambre

Only moments before the meeting I had made a fresh cream strawberry and Cointreau Swiss roll to serve alongside a range of drinks: alcoholic and otherwise. Once the main business had been dealt with, we found ourselves telling ghost stories. Mine was about the inexplicable events that occurred in the Victorian house of my childhood as well as the “ghost” voice captured on video in my current bathroom.The ghost in my bathroom I also mentioned how I had once stayed on my own in a company house and was kept awake by the sound of a motorcycle apparently speeding towards the building only for the engine to cut out suddenly as it reached the front of the house. This sound was repeated over and over again until daylight. I refused to spend another night in that house and checked into a hotel the next day.

Mr Couple said when he had been on a night shift he  had spied what he took to be a woman dressed in white, before she vanished down what he knew to be a blind alley. He assumed that his eyesight was playing tricks on him and attributed it to the fact he had been extremely tired that day. His wife described how, as a child, she had stayed in a hotel with her parents. For some reason they were in a different room to hers. One night she had woken up to find a small boy standing at the foot of the bed and staring at her. She closed her eyes, hoping it was just her imagination but when she opened them again he was still there. At length he simply vanished.

In a street close to our house, Cristo had come across a gaunt young man, just as he was coming home from the gym. Even from a distance there was something about the young man’s strange loping gait and pale face that had unnerved him. Close to, when Cristo found himself reluctantly looking into the other man’s piercing colourless eyes he felt even more uneasy. A while later, Cristo had the same sensation when he was walking past a group of young people and one woman, with the same colourless eyes, suddenly held his gaze with her baleful stare.

We then spoke about palmists. As well as my experience at a theatrical garden party, which led me to forever forego the potential delights of hang-gliding or parachuting,  I described how I had been to a tarot reader whilst I was staying in California.Theatrical Palmist The woman made a tape of her reading which I played back with some interest on my return to England. What soon becomes clear is that the tarot reader is desperately trying to elicit responses from me but I am equally determined to give nothing away.  She made a number of comments about future colleagues which proved to be wide off the mark. Mr Couple said that when he had his future wife had separated for a while, he had been to see a male fortune teller in Thailand. Apparently the palmist had foretold he would be getting back together again with the woman who is now his wife. However, he admitted that the fortune-teller had wrongly described him as being a pilot. We all agreed that when it came to fortune-tellers, people had a tendency to only latch on to the parts they wanted to believe in and ignored those inconvenient elements which proved untrue. Likewise, although we were not convinced of the existence of ghosts, we were aware that we had all experienced incidents we would be hard pressed to readily explain away.

One event I was hard pressed to explain away at the time was the behaviour of a man, who had once lived in Cristo’s flat. After the fire, Alex stayed in touch whilst he lived in Birmingham and I rented a flat close to our house, which had been badly damaged in the conflagration. I had lost touch with Alex after he later emigrated from the UK to go and work in Australia. I heard on the grapevine that he had married and divorced in quick succession. Then, out of the blue, Alex started writing to me again, saying he had been inspired to do so by a strange dream he had had about me. Finally, he asked if we could meet up when he was next in the country on business. Intrigued by his dream I agreed. Although Alex did come over to England he abruptly stopped writing to me when I refused to agree to his bizarre proposal that he would come over to my flat, but that we were not to speak a word to one another. I later discovered the real reason behind his eccentric behaviour.  It seems after his marriage collapsed, he fell in love with a young woman who subsequently died. We had shared the same name. His dreams of her death had merged with his memories of seeing me trapped in an upper storey window whilst clouds of smoke billowed around me and a fire raged in the flat below. Apparently her best friend attempted to have an affair with him but a sense of guilt had meant he could not respond to her advances. Although our relationship had always been platonic I knew he carried a torch for me and considered me, in his own words, out of his league. As I later explained indignantly to a friend: Alex was attempting to use me to test whether he could still feel physical desire for a woman or whether it had died along with his late girlfriend. My indignation was tempered when the OF, who had briefly met up with Alex, said he had been shocked by how alarmingly overweight Alex had become. Perhaps it dawned on Alex that in his much altered state, I might not find him physically attractive and that was why he had bottled out from meeting up with me. Whatever the truth, I know I would never have dated Alex whilst we were still living in the same building. It always seemed a sensible rule to adhere to, although it not been quite so easy to follow ever since the arrival of the delectable Cristo.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The play’s the thing. Act One

There was a time when I was a regular theatre goer. For a number of reasons it has been quite some time since I have last had the pleasure of seeing a play in the West End or elsewhere. Despite the expense, I always bought programmes. Consequently I am now able to remind myself of the many performances I have seen over the decades.

I first started going to see plays as a schoolgirl. We were taken to see Macbeth at the Young Vic and The White Devil at the Old Vic. Three years after winning her second Oscar, Glenda Jackson played the lead, Vittoria Corombona, in the latter play. Four years later, there was a furore over the depiction of male rape in Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain. It was play I had intended to see but before I had a chance to go, it was banned and the director Michael Bogdanov put on trial for obscenity. He was later acquitted. What angered me most was the fact that the courts had not sought fit to prosecute the depiction of the graphic murder and sexual assault of Glenda Jackson’s character in the 17th century play: The White Devils. It seemed the self-proclaimed guardians of public morality were only outraged when the victims of violent sexual assault were male.

Long before Helen Mirren portrayed the Tudor Queen in the award-winning mini- series “Elizabeth”, Glenda Jackson gave what was deemed to be the definitive portrayal of the sovereign in the television series “Elizabeth R”. Unlike Mirren’s graphic version, the depiction of horrific torture and execution in the 1970s could only be hinted at. Nevertheless it could be as chilling in its way as any modern blood soaked gore-fest. In 1982 Glenda starred as Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress in Robert David MacDonald's “Summit Conference” at the Lyric Theatre. Georgina Hale played Mussolini's mistress Clara Petacci. Helen Mirren had played Clara in a BBC television play 7 years earlier. The director decided that Helen Mirren should play the real-life brunette Clara as a blonde, claiming, somewhat fatuously I thought, that a flaxen haired mistress of such a powerful man would be more credible than a woman with darker tresses.

In 1998 I saw Helen Mirren star with Alan Rickman in Anthony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre. I was more taken with her role as Moll Cutpurse in Middleton & Dekker's “The Roaring Girl”. This Jacobean play was performed at the Barbican theatre in period costume to great effect. Memorably, Helen Mirren had to perform a lively dance whilst singing raucously at the same time. I was also admired the caddish Luxton, played by Jonathon Hyde. The Roaring Girl was one of the few theatrical productions I saw at least half a dozen times or so during its run.

Vanessa Redgrave, along with Glenda Jackson, is one of those stars of the stage who I judge worth seeing, regardless of the quality of the production itself. For my birthday in 1991, the Partridge and I saw Vanessa as Isadora Duncan in “When she danced.” More recently I saw her in Hecuba. Only by reading through my collection of theatre programmes did I realise that I had seen the late great Paul Scofield play the title role in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman”, alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in 1996.
He died 4 years later. Ten years after I had seen her on stage in “Summit Conference” Glenda Jackson retired to take up a new career as a Member of Parliament. I have always regarded it as a special privilege to be able to see actors of the calibre of Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield and Maggie Smith perform live, even when I can only afford uncomfortable and rickety seats up in the gods. In a darkened auditorium it is quite easy to imagine that they are performing for me alone.

In recent decades there has been a tendency for famous American stars of television and film to chance their arm at performing on the London stage, hoping to take a successful production back to Broadway. Not all of them, unlike the Vanessa Redgraves and Glenda Jacksons of this world, are proficient at mastering the differing mediums of stage, film and television. Kim Cattrall gave a moving performance as Claire Harrison the quadriplegic lead character in Brain Clark’s “Whose life is it anyway.” Claire fights for the right to be allowed to die, something she is unable to undertake at her own hands being paralyzed. I saw the original London production with Tom Conti in the late 1970s. We chanced to pass by the actor Anthony Andrews and his wife on their way backstage just as we walked to our coach to take us back home. At the time I had a huge schoolgirl crush on Andrews and it made my night.

Glancing through the Cattrall programme I see it contains an appeal by Debbie Purdey the prominent activist campaigning for the right to be assisted in ending her own life, should her debilitating condition make it untenable, without the fear that those helping her would risk a lengthy jail sentence for simply carrying out her heartfelt last wishes.

Another Hollywood actor who impressed me on stage was Brendan Fraser in “Cat on a hot tin roof”. I still have the programme and have discovered it has currently attracted a bid of £2.99 on e-bay. It cost £3.00 which represents a loss of one penny to the seller. Still, perhaps if I were to likewise auction off my entire collection of programmes I might garner enough to pay for a seat in the stalls of a current production.

Now the curtain must fall on the subject albeit temporarily. It will rise again not just on stage plays but also on the operas I have enjoyed.

Always look on the bright side of life (Revised November 2011)

I have often been impressed by the quiet stoicism of people facing serious illness. When Ruth first told me she had been diagnosed with cancer I was stunned both at the news and her fortitude. Usually she displayed a highly strung disposition. Tragically, despite her firm resolve to the contrary Ruth succumbed to her illness. Her death brought to mind the lines from Macbeth: ”Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Helen was also faced with a life threatening illness only a year or so back. Fortunately she is now in remission. We met up for dinner yesterday. As she was working nearby, I suggested we go to the Andaz Hotel in Liverpool Street as it housed a number of different restaurants, all of which seemed to be reasonably priced and had received good reviews. Having looked at the menus we chose to dine at the Grade II listed 1901 restaurant. As the restaurant area did not officially open for another 30 minutes, I asked if we could sit at our seats and order from the wine bar until it did, saving us from having to change seats later. It also gave us an opportunity to go through some administrative matters relating to her proposed academic studies before we dined.

Helen’s brush with death has made her reappraise her life. She has decided to embark on two very different paths: she plans to undertake a MBA, a task daunting in itself for someone who has recently been so gravely ill. I believe studying for a MBA is an excellent idea. It is something I did myself. When I thought I was going to be relocated to the North East on a permanent basis, I was concerned about the prospect of not knowing anyone there. At least if I were studying for a MBA, I would come into contact with fellow students. When the relocation fell through as a result of a corporate merger and I returned to the London HQ, I decided to still go ahead with my MBA studies. I chose the Open University as it meant that my studies would not be adversely affected if I was obliged to move house. Similarly, I liked the idea of being able to attend my graduation ceremony at a location outside of the UK. As I had already been to Singapore, I chose to graduate within the Palais des Congrès in Brussels, part of a complex housing the buildings and gardens of the Albertine, the Musées des Beaux Arts and the Musée des Instruments de Musique. Mandip accompanied me and we spent the weekend wining and dining in the Belgian capital before returning home by Eurostar. At the time, I had thought it a pity that my late mother had not been alive to attend this second graduation ceremony. The bald truth was even when she had the chance she chose not to amend her holiday plans and come to the ceremony when I had first graduated in England. My mother’s actions were not out of character. When I was still only a child she had left me on my own, despite the fact that I was desperately ill with quinsy, so that she could go away on holiday. Some people are just not cut out to be parents.From Russia with love

By contrast, Helen is keen to raise a family with her husband and has been looking into the possibility of adopting a child. They would prefer to adopt a baby but as she is closer to 50 than 40 it seems highly unlikely she would achieve her goal in this country at least. She is also considering surrogacy using her own eggs. Again, her age and the toll taken on her body by her cancer treatment conspire against her.  In the same edition of the Guardian magazine that my article appeared in, the artist and film director Sam Taylor Wood, then 42, described her own experience of surviving cancer. She explained that she had developed a core of steel to cope with her illness and that the steeliness remained even after she had gone into remission. Helen echoed these sentiments last night. Sam Taylor-Wood also talked about dating her 19 year old partner Aaron Johnson, the star of her film.Sam Taylor Wood interview Since that article was first published, it has been announced that Sam is expecting a baby by Johnson which perhaps gives a glimmer of hope that Helen might be able to do the same, albeit using a surrogate.

I wish Helen well in her plans. Whether adopting from abroad or from this country she will need to go through UK adoption agencies. I was aghast when she used a contentious term to describe a mixed race child.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t use that word when you meet up with social workers. It is considered highly pejorative and borderline racist.” I counselled
I also had to warn Helen not to talk of using corporal punishment on any child she adopted. Helen was born in Africa and despite living in this country for many years still retains the more robust attitudes of her homeland rather than the politically correct values of this country. To her credit, Helen is not a hypocrite. As I have mentioned before, having worked in HR I became somewhat jaded with the number of people who were quick to seek official redress when non-pc language was directed at them but remained blithely indifferent to their own use of inflammatory terms.Let he who is without prejudice cast

Once we had sorted out some paperwork, we were able to sit back and enjoy our surroundings and meal at 1901. The building dates back to 1884 and was once the Great Eastern Hotel. (I realised later that Mandip and I had originally dined at the restaurant when it had different owners and was called the Terminus). Being Grade II listed the interior combined contemporary décor with original classical pillars and a magnificent stained-glass dome in the ceiling. Its menu focusses on dishes made with British-grown produce I had wood-pigeon for my starter and Helen had smoked salmon. She had not realised that the fish was cured rather than cooked and could not eat it. By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed my wood- pigeon. We both had sea bass for our main course and I chose a mint parfait for my dessert. Used to peppermint oil in such dishes as opposed to what seemed to be fresh garden mint, I found the taste interesting though somewhat overpowering. Nevertheless, all in all it was a delightful meal, the more so when Helen insisted on picking up the bill. I offered to pay my share but as she insisted, I demurred with good grace. I jokingly said that if I knew she was going to pay I would have ordered vintage champagne. Once, when I was similarly short of funds, I decided to treat a male friend to dinner at an upmarket restaurant as it was his birthday. The three-course set menu was reasonably priced and came with a suitably diverse range of options. To my consternation, given that I had just explained how I was living off an overdraft, my male friend opted for the most expensive item on the menu: the lobster.
“What are you having?” he asked, having thrown my finances into complete disarray with his  choice.
“The stale bread looks good,“ I replied lugubriously.

Since writing this Helen discovered she had fallen pregnant at the age of 48 without medical intervention. Given her age and her illness it is a true miracle. I congratulate her and her husband and send them my heartfelt wishes. Life can prove very unexpected at times.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

There's no place like home

I previously mentioned my keen interest in local history. As a result of my researches, I discovered that there had once been a sizeable mansion known as Church House close by. I was miffed that it was yet another mansion which I can now only visit in my imagination. Apparently, there was a house on the site as early as the 16th century, which is hardly surprising given that the nearby church, from which it derived its name, dates from the 11th century. Initially, I was rather envious of the ability of the 19th century occupants of my house to look out on to a vista of Tudor roof and chimney tops. In reality, the original Elizabethan mansion was rebuilt in the 18th century and on a more modest scale. The only description I have hitherto found of the Georgian house dates from 1912, where it is described in “A History of the County of Surrey” as being a large early 18th century building of two stories, in a very dilapidated condition, the upper part being used as workshops. “The external walls are covered with plaster, the roof is of tiles. The house faces north and south, the south being the principal front, and is approached through a fine wrought-iron gateway standing between brick piers surmounted by stone vases. The house is E-shaped and has at the back two semi-hexagonal bay windows. The hall is a fine panelled room, but unless immediately repaired will soon be in decay.” The warning proved prophetic and the whole house was demolished in the 1920s. Only the high boundary walls and the ornate gateway bear witness to the site’s former splendour. It is now used as a recreation ground and firework displays are held annually on Bonfire Night. It was a number of years before I realised that the impressive fireworks emanating from the site were a public display and not provided by a wealthy and philanthropic neighbour for my personal delight, having as I do a veritable grandstand view. During its chequered history, Church House had been a children’s home. It seems appropriate that the grounds should once again echo to the sound of countless children’s voices on Bonfire Night.

During the 18th century, Church House was lived in for a while by the celebrated actor, playwright and theatre manager David Garrick. The equally famous 18th century playwright and poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan also happened to live at Church House for a time, where he was said to have entertained the Prince Regent, the wayward eldest son of King George III, on a number of occasions.

Church House was in too decrepit a state to be saved. Thankfully its fate was not shared by Eagle House, only a mile or so away from where I live. In the Victorian era attempts were made to demolish this fine Jacobean building but a determined campaign by my spiritual ancestors ensured its survival. Eagle House was built for Robert Bell and his wife Alice Colston in 1613. Three centuries later the same “A History of the County of Surrey” described Eagle House as being of “of an unusual plan, for England, with a large room reaching from the front to the back of the house on each of the three floors, with smaller rooms and a staircase on each side of them. It is gabled, with ten gables, built of brick with stone quoins and much oak timber in the upper part. One of the staircases has been replaced, and some slight alterations have been made, chiefly owing to the addition of a wing. There are four remarkably fine fretwork ceilings of Bell's time.”

In common with the Tudor Sutton House in Hackney, Eagle House was turned into a school at one stage in its convoluted history. Its most famous pupil was the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who boarded there for a number of months in 1803. As with the Victorian novelists Bulwer-Lytton at Sutton House and Edgar Allan Poe at the Manor School in Hackney, the short time young Arthur spent at an English school did not prove to be the happiest days of his life. All three schoolboys took a distinct dislike to their respective headmasters. Nevertheless, in the 20th century Arthur’s brief stint as an English schoolboy was commemorated by a blue plaque on the wall of Eagle House. Having read Arthur’s essay on women, my sympathies lie wholly with his schoolmasters. The poisonous adult was no doubt equally obnoxious as a child. In his essay he describes the Hindu practise of suttee or sati, whereby the widow immolates hersef on the funeral pyre of her husband, as being repulsive. The tenor of Arthur’s hatred of the female sex is demonstrated when he compares his revulsion to suttee as being on par with his revulsion at the idea of widows spending their late husband’s money on the successor to her affections. In many ways Arthur is a Freudian analyst’s dream patient. His opinions about womankind seem to have been coloured in part by his fraught relationship with his mother Joanna. It seems she was more than happy to dump him at Eagle House so that she and Arthur’s father could enjoy an extended tour of Europe together without being saddled with the little wretch. And in the light of his later rampant misogyny, what self-respecting woman could blame her? Unsurprisingly, Arthur was never a hit with the ladies. When she was 17 and he was 43, a young woman named Flora Weiss was so disgusted by Arthur’s advances and his offering of a bunch of grapes that she let them slip, as if by accident, into the water. She later wrote in her diary: “I didn’t want the grapes because old Schopenhauer had touched them.” On behalf of women everywhere I raise a glass to toast the spirited Flora Weiss.The original owner of Eagle House, Robert Bell had been a founder member of the East India Company. I previously related how Captain Milward’s experiences working for the same company influenced his decision to decorate Sutton House with the opulent colours of the Orient as well as silk carpets.(keep the homes fires burning) Eagle House underwent extensive renovation at the behest of the Islamic Al-Furqan Foundation in the late 20th century. The last time I wandered around Eagle House, I was impressed by the way the ornate Jacobean panelling and ceilings were complimented by the elegant sofas covered in brightly coloured Middle Eastern silks.

In my own small way, I have been instrumental in helping to preserve a building from the area’s colourful past. After my impassioned speech at the Town Hall early last year in support of the redevelopment of the site next door, building work began a few months later. (Voice of the people )There was a worrying hiatus of months on end after the initial start. To my relief, they are now redeveloping the site in earnest again, although the clouds of dust from the gutted interiors have played havoc with my plants emerging from their winter slumbers.

Once the building is in a more acceptable state I intend to send photographs to the May Gibbs museum  in Sydney Australia. May Gibbs was the English born artist who found fame in Australia for her charming illustrations in her books for children. During the reign of King Edward VII she spent a Christmas with her relatives in the house next door and produced a series of amusing sketches of her stay, some of which can be seen at the museum dedicated to her work. I have also stated my belief that the renowned English novelist, poet and critic Ford Madox-Ford was born in the same house. Another snippet of knowledge I have garnered is that Ford Madox Ford was the maternal grandson of one of the most pre-eminent Victorian artists, Ford Madox Brown. One of the latter’s most famous works “The last of England” was inspired by the emigration of a Pre-Raphaelite sculptor to Australia. Two decades later, May Gibbs, then a child of 4, set out for a new life in Australia with her parents. Unlike the anxious couple in Madox-Brown’s painting, it was by no means the last of England for May as she returned several times to her native country, including that memorable Edwardian Christmas  in 1904 spent in the house now being renovated next door.

Sadly no attempt was made to save the greatest prize of all in terms of local and national history: Horatio Nelson’s and Emma Hamilton’s last home together at Merton Place.

It was demolished in the 1820s. Even though Queen Victoria did not come to the throne for another 17 years, there was already a move away from the licentiousness and excesses of her uncle, King George IV’s reign. No one was interested in saving what had been the scene of a notorious ménage à trois between the Hamiltons and Horatio Nelson, even if the latter died one of Britain’s greatest heroes. After Nelson died Emma Hamilton, whose own husband Sir William had died some years before, found herself mired in debt. She was declared bankrupt in 1813 and there was a forced sale of her possessions. One of the most poignant reminders of her ill-fated affair with Admiral Nelson can still be found in Wimbledon today. On first entering Southside House to begin the tour of the building, visitors can see the rocking horse claimed to have been owned by Emma and Nelson’s daughter Horatia standing in the corner. Until his dying day Nelson was wont to carry around with him a drawing of Horatia as a small child, standing next to her beloved rocking horse.