Friday, 28 January 2011

Goodbye Solo.

Two weeks ago I saw, “Goodbye Solo” an extraordinary independent film on BBC i-player by the Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani.  In 2008 it won the international film critic's FIPRESCI award for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

Essentially a two-hander it tells the story of an unexpected friendship that forms between Solo, (Souléymane Sy Savanéa) a Senegalese cab driver and William,(Red West) an old man who catches his cab one evening. The film is set in Winston Salem North Carolina, a region hitherto unknown to me, which seems blessed with some magnificent countryside. During their first cab ride to his apartment, William books Solo for another in a month’s time when he intends to make a one way journey to Blowing Rock, a rocky outcrop above a gorge.  Blowing Rock it seems is famous for the fact that objects hurled from it fly up into the air instead. It gradually dawns on Solo that William intends to commit suicide at the spot. He therefore resolves to persuade him that life is worth living.

As Solo becomes more involved in William’s life he realises that the young male cashier at the local cinema is either William’s son or grandson, not that the youth has any idea who William is. The days pass and William methodically begins to wind up his affairs. When the day of the cab ride to Blowing Rock arrives Solo arranges matter so that he is William’s driver and spends the whole night in the car park outside William’s motel room, hoping he will have a change of heart.   

As a last desperate measure Solo persuades William to allow his young step-daughter Alice to join them on the ride as he has seen in William’s diary how he admires the bright young girl and believes that her youthful vitality will be dissuade William from his path.

At Blowing Rock the trio climb part way up. Solo throws a last heartfelt glance at William before taking Alice to buy an ice cream. The acting and the screenplay are so superb the viewer is left with no idea whether William will leap to his death or whether he will be waiting for them by the taxi.

Having bought the ice-cream   Solo and Alice climb up to Blowing Rock. There is no one else there. I am sure the film crew would not risk the life of their lead actor but I for one had vertigo just looking at Solo battling the strong winds on the rocks in an effort to remain upright.

After I saw the film I discovered that the actor who played Solo had been an air steward, which is how he arrived in America. That element of his real life was amusingly incorporated into his background story for the film. Red West who played William had been boyhood friends with Elvis Presley and had even been his bodyguard at one stage.

The whole premise of the film seems very gloomy and I almost switched off 10 minutes in. I am glad I persevered. Solo is a beautiful little film with superb acting from both leads. I admired the way the film did not opt for a sentimental ending. From Solo’s friendship with William came a deep respect for his personal choices, even suicide, despite his genuine regret that William should have elected to end his life.
There was one scene in the film that made me stop the film and play it back again. As William unlocks the door of the motel room in which he will spend his final night, I noticed the door number. It is exactly the same as my own three digit house number. There the coincidences end other than for one. Unlike Red West I never knew Elvis but I almost died on exactly the same day he did. In retrospect, I often wonder who my friend Cristobel, an Elvis fan, would have mourned more for: Elvis or me. If it had been Elvis that would have made her “nothin’ but a hound dog!”

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The secrets of the palace

I have been visiting Hampton Court for so many years now I like to think that long after I am dead my shade will continue to roam the palace, allowing me to explore every nook and cranny of such a fascinating place. Every time I visit I glean some new snippet of information. For example, the permanent exhibition on Young Henry (VIII) is set in a sequence of rooms Cardinal Wolsey would have recognised. The Tudor linen-fold panelling is still in place and the ornate plaster ceiling display Wolsey's ecclesiastical badges and ciphers.

Aside from this suite of rooms the only other intimate chamber which appears to have changed little from its Tudor heyday, is the so called Wolsey Closet. It too boasts an ornate ceiling with Tudor roses and Prince of Wales feathers. The sequence of religious paintings, above the linenfold panelling, was commissioned by Henry VIII but was hidden behind a screen of paintings from the following century. Off from this room is a small alcove, which might have served as a garde-robe and is claimed by some to be haunted.

When I made to walk out of this room in early January 2011 I had to quickly step back again as Henry VIII and his courtiers strolled past. They came to a halt in a part of the palace which had been rebuilt in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren, not that they seemed to notice. I hot-footed it back to the Hanoverian suite of rooms and asked the warder the quickest way to back the Great Hall so I could see Henry dine in public.

The Hanoverian Rooms in a small stately home would be deemed important rooms in their own right. They get a little lost between Tudor magnificence and  Stuart grandeur. I was intrigued by a locked room I could only peek at it through the top of the glazed door. It shows a room not open to the general public and which has yet to be renovated and in its current delapidated state reminded me of the upper floor of Kew Palace. I asked the warder if it ever would be opend up and he thought possibly no as its small size would make access difficult.

I was fortunate enough to be standing near another warder when he explained that only three roundels in the ceiling of the Great Watching Chamber dated from the Tudor period. They belonged to Jane Seymour, of whom the less said the better as far as I am concerned. All the rest were placed there in the 19th century.

Attempts had been made by Henry VIII to obliterate all reminders of Jane Seymour’s unfortunate predecessor, Anne Boleyn, so I was pleased to come across Anne's initials intertwined with Henry's in the oak screen in the Great Hall, although it was hard to get a clear image.

I find increasingly that strangers stop and ask me questions about a stately home whenever I visit a place. Thus, at Ham House I was asked about the Duchess of Lauderdale's bathroom and at Hampton Court an elderly lady asked if I knew what the bean bag like object  on the floor of the Pages' Room was. Perhaps bedding I mused and was pleased to have it confirmed by a sign that said pages ate and slept in this room. “And there”, I said confidently, pointing to the arras curtain, now sealed up, “is where they would have passed through to the Great Watching Chamber to wait upon the nobility”.

There is a charming contemporary portrait of one boy in Tudor livery peering cheekily from behind a glazed leaded window at the palace. The artist is unknown. It is to be found in the so called Haunted Gallery, where the ghost of Catherine Howard is said to re-enact her desperate bid to speak to the king after her notorious sexual past was exposed.

Along this same corridor, visitors can now look into the Holy Day closet of Katherine Parr in which she married Henry VIII on 12th July 1543. In Katherine's time her closet would have been partially glazed to allow her to look out over the Chapel Royal. There was a time when visitors like myself could step onto the royal balcony but a number of years ago it was found to be structurally unsound, meaning it was no longer safe to be open to the general public. 

Happily, new delights compensate for the curtailment of old. Thus, Henry's Council Chamber, which overlooks Chapel Court and its Privy Gardens, has been reconstructed to how it would have looked in his time with screens around the room showing looped conversations between his chief privy councillors. As befitting my own status, I sat on the replica of Henry's chair beneath his canopy of state as his councillors on video screens bickered amongst themselves.

There are many items on display in Hampton Court, glorifying a reigning sovereign. But there is one piece of furniture which silently whispered “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal” every time it was used. If you descend from King William III’s state apartments to his private apartments on the ground floor, you pass a small closet off the stairwell containing his personal close stool. It is of faded red velvet inlaid with brass studs and is very similar in style to the earlier Stuart royal close stool on display at  Knole. 

There are reminders scattered around Hampton Court that although it is no longer a  royal residence it continued and continues to function as a home to a number of people. Thus, there is the letterbox by the Tudor Kitchens. A pump in Fountain Court provided water to the grace and favour residents. Ironically in the 16th century Cardinal Wolsey had piped running water on the ground and first floor of his original palace. Name plaques to former grace and favour residents are to be found by their former apartment.

Of all my discoveries about Hampton Court Palace, the one secret that has occupied my mind for years was finally revealed to me in January 2011. There are a set of imposing doors in the Great Watching Chamber which once led to Henry VIII’s private apartments, through which only the most exalted or most favoured visitor could pass. I yearned to know what I would see if the doors were opened. I did not mind if it were only mundane offices or decaying chambers on a par with the one in the Georgian Rooms. On 2nd January 2011 I was finally granted my wish as a warder solemnly unlocked the door to reveal..........a blank brick wall. I have to confess, my imagination had never once led me to expect that there was a brick wall concealed behind the doors. No wonder poor Henry and his courtiers had to take refuge in the 17th century part of the palace just an hour or so earlier.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Brimstone Butterfly's Hampton Court: The Tudor kitchens part two.

In a courtyard overlooked by the windows of the Great Watching Chamber is a strange circular building dating from the 17th century. It once served as a kitchen and gave its name to the courtyard in which it is to be found today. William Kent, he of Chiswick House fame, turned it into a urinal in the 18th century. The Tudor Kitchens themselves were spared such an ignoble fate. Even though they were transformed into grace and favour apartment in the 18th century, their overall structural integrity survived allowing them to be restored to how they might have looked when they  reverberated to the sound of King Henry VIII’s kitchen staff, not that he had ate their food as a rule. The king had his own separate kitchen in which his personal chef prepared meals for him.

Years ago I recall seeing a huge iron cauldron suspended above a fire in the Tudor kitchens. Someone had cheekily left the label of a teabag dangling from the side. Live cookery demonstrations have become a tad more sophisticated ever since the kitchens have been played host to a research project run by Historia, a team of  food archaeologists. Dressed in period costume the latter regularly prepare and present 16th century meals using authentic ingredients and exact replicas of Tudor kitchen utensils. Such demonstrations take place in the historic kitchens on selected weekends throughout the year. Lest it is thought that the picture above contains an anachronism in depicting a Tudor man wearing glasses, Henry VIII sported a similar style. But it is less probable that a mere cook would have been able to afford to buy what was then very much a luxury item.

I have taken the opportunity to attend Historia’s cookery demonstrations as often as I can. I know I was green with envy one Christmas when the Eagle accompanied me to Hampton Court Palace. The cooks were roasting a whole deer to have later. Much as I like venison that was not the source of my envy but the fact they were staying in rooms thought to have formed Anne Boleyn's private apartments before she became queen. Even though I was told that the rooms bore little trace of their Tudor origins, just the possibility that Anne had whiled away many an hour there made me debate whether I ought to consider a new career as a food historian myself if that was one of the perks of the job! Sadly the food historians seem to be an all male bunch. In Henry VIII's time the only known woman employed in the kitchens was a maker of subtleties, which were stunning edible centrepieces crafted out of marchpane, a precursor to marzipan, and gilded with gold and silver leaf. When I went to Hampton Court in December work had begun on a subtlety in the shape of a Tudor warship. By the time I went back in January, even more of the ship had been gilded.

In December, one of the cooks was busy cutting up pieces of meat which they were planning to use on another day. “How do you intend to preserve it?” I asked, imaging that he would reveal arcane methods of meat preservation. “We’ll chuck it in the freezer,” came back the laconic reply. Still, they had used an ancient method of preserving joints of meat by placing them out in the deep snow, which covered the ground in December, although they were concerned that the local foxes might snaffle a frozen meal from Nature's own freezer. 
 I admired the bread in the ovens and asked it the cooks had made them. It seemed they had not as they were fashioned from the finest plastic and constituted part of the permanent display in the kitchens. 

Bread ovens were not only used by the Tudors to bake loaves but also pies. The pastry case itself was not designed to be eaten, only the contents, but the pie crust made an excellent baking dish. 

Sauces were made by boiling cubes of meat in the huge boiling coppers, several of which were still extant. 

Various foodstuffs could be cooked in dishes and pots on the small charcoal fires lit underneath openings in the bench top. I was told that by moving the dishes closer to or further away from the fire or by using different types of metal or earthenware pots and dishes were all ways in which Tudor cooks could adjust the cooking temperature in the absence of a modern thermostat.

“I see you're wearing clothes,” was my opening gambit to the man operating the spit in December. My comment was not as odd as it might have first appeared. Henry VIII was so incensed by the behaviour of the spit boys and scullions that he passed ordinances specifically forbidding them from going around ‘naked, or in garments of such vileness as they do now,” nor were they allowed to “lie in the nights and days in the kitchen or ground by the fireside’.  The man turning the spit said that he did not think the boys would have been completely naked, just stripped to their loincloths. But he added that in painting of The Field of the Cloth of Gold; a naked man could be seen turning a spit. I don't know if he was pulling my leg, but despite scrutinizing the painting later I could not observe either spit or naked man and I didn't like to ask the warder on duty to point it out for me. The Tudor spit-boys might have been shameless, but it doesn't mean I am.

I was saddened to discover that Henry's alleged jolly japes with the kitchen staff when he was said to have joined them all for a came of cards, was not wholly true. It is more likely Henry played cards with one of the Sergeants, a post equivalent to a butler in a great household and therefore hardly the most junior of the King’s retinue.

I must say I rather envied the man turning the spit in December. The weather had been incredibly cold and it was hard to tear myself away from the hypnotic warmth of the bright fire. He told me that he had recently completed building an open fireplace in his modern home and that it was a delight to have a real fire blazing away, at which point he was told off by the Master Cook, probably for bringing the 21st century into what was supposed to be a re-creation of the Tudor world. When I returned in early January, they were again roasting meats on spits, this time in readiness to take upstairs to the Great Hall in which Henry VIII, who was in residence along with his fourth and fifth wives, would be dining in public. In reality, Henry usually dined in his own private apartments, served with food from his aforementioned private kitchen.

The Tudor kitchens prepared food for the Tudor equivalent of the staff canteen, with the nobility eating in the senior management dining room, known to posterity as the Great Watching Chamber or in their rooms. I think the junior staff got the better end of the deal, having their meals under the magnificent hammer beamed roof of the Great Hall.

I was unable to identify one of the roasted meats given its size. It seemed more akin to a turkey than a chicken but I was not aware that Tudors of Henry's time were familiar with the bird. The fowl was in fact a capon or castrated chicken. It made my mouth water as did the other spitted meats. I asked whether another bowl contained bread sauce but it seems it was chicken rendered down into what looked to me like an unpalatable mess but which would have found high favour at a Tudor table thanks to its white colour and texture, according to one of the cooks.

The food archaeologists dress according to the specific period they are supposed to be representing. Thus, on one occasion when they were attired as cooks at the Stuart court of James I, one man showed me that his apparent pot belly was actually the fashionable padding in his doublet. I get the distinct impression that much as they love giving demonstrations to the public, they would all be just as happy cooking on their own.
“It must be tough on your partners”, I commented, thinking I would be none too pleased if my (imaginary) beloved vanished over New Year and other bank holidays.
"We were doing this before we met our partners, so they are well used to it by now,” the master cook insisted.    

With all the foods prepared the cooks carried the various dishes to the Great Hall and set them before the king, in readiness for the doors to the Great Hall to be opened so that the general public could file by and take a quick photo of their liege lord guzzling.

When I examined my photos of my December visit I realised there were a few kitchen utensils that I could not identify. On my next visit the cooks explained what they were.Sitting on a table against the kitchen wall was
the wooden base which used to hold the great sharpening stone needed to keep the kitchen knives sharp. On the floor was what is believed to be a rare example of a cast iron medieval pestle and mortar. Or so the food historian told me. There was also a huge pestle and mortar hewn out of white marble.

One important element of the Tudor kitchens that many visitors may well pay scant attention to is Master Carpenter’s Court. It was through here that fresh deliveries passed by on their way to the kitchens, having arrived via the gatehouse. The latter was occupied by the Clerks of the Green Cloth, whose job it was to check and account for all kitchen supplies. Nowadays the gateway is usually firmly barred although it was once opened a few years back to allow the public to gain access to the palace when the Base Court entrance was closed. To entice visitors to explore this otherwise neglected corner of the palace, an audio loop can be heard of the sound of horses' hooves and goods deliveries, possibly in heavy barrels, being made.

To see the Tudor kitchens at their best a visitor would be well advised to try and go along to Hampton Court Palace on a day in which Historia are giving one of their demonstrations. There will be at least one held every month during 2011.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Chiswick House Part Four

As is her wont, having emerged from the villa, the Brimstone Butterfly decided to partake of a cream cake and coffee in the white stone and glass modern café nearby. As it was such a fine autumnal day I decided to eat on the terrace outside. Suitably refreshed I arose to explore the garden in earnest. I retraced my steps to the villa and walked around to the back of the house.

What I had not realised until I viewed the exterior that Lady Burlington’s single storey summer parlour pre-dated Chiswick House itself. It is to be found beyond the two-storey Link Building and was built as an extension to the Jacobean mansion in the early 18th century. Burlington had the interior remodelled for his wife when he built the classical villa.

Although I loved the classical exterior of the house, a joy to behold from any vantage point, I was less taken with the avenue of classical urns and the stone Grecian sphinx in the garden. Having seen the avenues of ram-headed Ancient Egyptian sphinxes at Karnak as a young woman I have never taken to their rather fey Grecian counterparts.

A gateway designed by Inigo Jones a century earlier for a house in Chelsea, found its way to Chiswick House in the 18th century. It was a gift from that other great admirer of classical architecture, Sir Hans Sloane. It was the latter’s bequest to the nation that, along with King George III’s royal library, led to the founding of the British Museum. I have my own reasons for remembering Sir Hans Sloane, having worked in the British Library when it was housed within the British Museum. Sir Hans also gave his name to Sloane Square, the scene of intrigues which by their very nature had to be as discreet as any freemason activity held in secret within the walls of Chiswick House. Let us just say they drew more on Ancient Rome practises than architecture for their inspiration.

The deer house reflects the time when Chiswick House had its own deer paddock.

One path leads to a copy of the 1st century BC Venus de Medici set up high atop a tall Doric column. The Venus de Medici was a copy of an even older Ancient Grecian statue cast in bronze. I now realise that King William III’s apartments at Hampton Court contain a copy of the Venus de Medici cast in bronze. The dolphin at her feet indicates she has emerged suddenly from the sea and her pose that she has been caught by surprise. Perhaps next time the foolish girl will remember to put a swimming costume on.

As I walked along the "river" bank the dome of Chiswick House appeared golden in the dying rays of the autumn sun. It made a pleasing juxtaposition with the golden hue tree nearby.

The white stone bridge which spans the man-made lake constructed from a stream is decorative but was built by Burlington's successors, the Dukes of Devonshire. Burlington himself had built a wooden bridge to span the water.

The obelisk by Burlington Gate is of interest because of a replica of the carved relief of an Ancient Grecian couple built into the base. Nowadays the original antique carving can be found on the ground floor of Chiswick House.

The garden feature I loved most of all, partly because it was so unexpected, was the splendid 19th century domed conservatory, which would not look out of place at Kew Gardens. By one of the urns on the roof I spied an owl whether of stone or metal I could not determine. As the doors of the hothouse were open I was able to sneak inside although strictly speaking it was after the normal closing time. Restoration work on the gardens continues today. The circular Italian gardens have been partially restored but have yet to reach maturity. There were a number of urns by the greenhouse, whose depictions of classical scenes made them of more interest to me than their counterparts by the house. The hothouse was accessed through the Inigo Jones gateway. I discovered later this part of the gardens were not originally part of Chiswick House. The neighbouring house and land was purchased by the Devonshires in the early 19th century. They promptly demolished the house but kept the gardens.

The imposing cascade waterfall does date from Burlington's era. There is an ironic twist to its presence. Chiswick House, along with all the other historic buildings I have visited, must pay its way. I was amused, therefore, to see it appear on television as the backdrop for a recent incontinent aids campaign. What made the irony even more delicious is that until the end of the 20th century no-one had been able to make the Cascade actually produce running water.