Belfast

After long consideration of the relative risks during the Coronavirus pandemic, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I finally swallowed feelings of unease and flew to Belfast to see Youngest Son (YS) and his Northern Irish girlfriend in their new home.  We had a packed four full days there – so packed that I will use two blog posts to cover my thoughts on our trip.  Here is the first.

Travel to Belfast by car and ferry was going to take a day and the fastest route involved travelling through the Irish Republic.  We were concerned about possible quarantine restrictions being imposed there during our trip but the ferry direct to Belfast from Birkenhead took nine hours and we couldn’t face that.  So we plumped for a short flight from Bristol, our closest airport, and a payment to Solar Aid to offset the carbon emission and to help people in Africa.

The 'Beacon Of Hope', Belfast (Also Known As: 'Nuala With The Hula' and 'The Thing With The Ring'

The ‘Beacon Of Hope’, Belfast (Also Known As: ‘Nuala With The Hula’ and ‘The Thing With The Ring’)

We had a wonderful time in and around a surprisingly sunny Belfast.  Fundamentally, it was good to be able to see how YS now lives.  Also, having shared a number of misgivings about his move to Northern Ireland while he had been staying with us during the Covid-19 lockdown, the visit indicated our validation of his move.  Beyond that, we ate and drank well, got a good feel for Belfast, and managed a day on the north Antrim coast and a day in the Mourne Mountains.  I’ll write more on those two trips another time.

LSW had the wise suggestion of starting our stay with a bus tour of Belfast.  With our best face masks firmly fastened again, we rode around centre and immediate suburbs of Belfast.  Much of the journey was through and past places that we recalled vividly from news reports of sectarian strife in the latter part of the last century: the Europa Hotel, Shankhill Road, Falls Road, Crumlin Road Gaol.  The Peace Wall separating communities in the west of the city is now repurposed for genuine messages of peace but it was still shocking.  The murals and the flags in many of the streets indicated the recent rawness of The Troubles.  Coupled with the helpful bus tour commentary, we got a very good introduction to the city.

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Early highlights of the tour were the famous Belfast shipyards and new Titanic Experience museum which we visited on the following day.  My expectations of the visit weren’t very high – I thought that the exhibition would major on the sinking and the romance of the likes of Winslet and de Caprio in the award winning film; I was wrong.

The Titanic Experience Building

The Titanic Experience Building

The material on the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage and a cross-section of the people who travelled and survived was well presented.  The exhibition also provided a lot of fascinating context such as the history of Belfast and, especially, the way industry built up around linen manufacture and then shipbuilding.  The exhibits included interactive displays and a splendidly unexpected and well operated automated ride through part of the building.  This was laced with audio and video that allowed us to get a better feel for the working conditions in the dry docks and the scale of undertaking to build the Titanic.

Our fortune with the weather made wandering the streets of Belfast pleasant.  There are few pre-Victorian buildings and many central streets are a strange mix of run down warehouses and old office buildings, late-Victorian civic and religious buildings (such as the Customs House, City Hall, and St Annes Cathedral) and the usual modern mish-mash of shops and offices.

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

One of the most impressive buildings is Stormont which is now the home of Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary assembly.  It was built in the 1930s next to the late Victorian Stormont Castle and sits in wide open grass and wooded grounds.  It is surprisingly accessible and views of it and from it are impressive.

Stormont

Stormont

Apart from Stormont and the City Hall, the city did not appear elegant but there is huge potential and an emerging vibrancy.  We saw the rumbustiousness of that vibrancy on Saturday night in the bar-laden Cathedral Quarter (not much social distancing there!) and in the presence of new hip coffee shops, cafes and restaurants.  Of these we particularly liked Freight, Established, General Merchants and OX Cave (sister wine bar to OX restaurant which we look forward to trying next time we are in Belfast).  Our centrally located hotel, The Flint, was also cool and comfortable.  We felt safe from Covid-19 and everything else wherever we went and the people we met were very friendly.

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Other highlights in the City were a mini picnic and coastal walk along the river Langan estuary to Helens Bay and visit to Belfast’s rather weary but endearing Botanic Gardens.  The Palm House there is a scaled down, but rather more beautiful, version of the Palm House in Kew Gardens.  LSW and I used to live in Kew and so it brought back some old memories.

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

On our final evening in Belfast, we went to dinner at the house of YS’s girlfriend’s parents.  We had a lovely evening enjoying their hospitality and catching up with them for the first time since they visited Gloucestershire several years ago.  It was an excellent finale to an excellent few days in Belfast.

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

 

Four Exhibitions, Three Sons, Two Breakfasts And One Gig

For much of my working life, I was in London while the family were in Gloucestershire.  I usually only got to see Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and our three sons during weekends when work often intruded and I wanted to rest.  Then the sons grew up and each of them spent time with me sleeping on the floor of my London flat while they took their first steps into the world of work.  The flat is very small so, although I got to know each so much better, the close proximity and sleeping arrangements were sometimes a stress.

Now, Eldest Son (ES), Middle Son (MS) and Youngest Son (YS) are all based in London and I have entered something of a golden period as a parent.  Now I am able to see them in short spells and in a relaxed way – over dinner, at breakfast, at a gig or in an exhibition. All I have to do is schedule the rendezvous around their diaries and enjoy the moment.  I plan to make the most of these arrangements while they last.

Last week, I was up in London again and was able to see all three sons.  The main reason for visiting London was to see a gig by Nuria Graham.  I first saw her in 2015 at Rough Trade and have now seen her twice since.  She is Spanish with some Irish heritage and writes some great tunes with intriguing English lyrics.  YS and I saw her at Jazz Servant Quarters which was just the type of venue I like: tiny (capacity for only 40 people) with a great sound system.  I loved the whole evening and plan to visit Jazz Servant Quarters again and also see Nuria once more next April.

Nuria Graham At Jazz Servant Quarters

Nuria Graham At Jazz Servant Quarters

Next morning, having stayed with YS overnight on their ailing inflatable bed, we went with his girlfriend for breakfast at the new Ozone Cafe in Hackney.  I love the treat of breakfast in London.  It often includes unusual and quality ingredients, it sets me up for the day of city exploration and usually obviates the need for lunch.

Ozone, Hackney

Ozone, Hackney

The previous day I had breakfasted at one of my favourite cafes – Ask For Janice in Smithfield – and had felt full most of the day.  At Ozone, I was a little more restrained since I was meeting an old friend for lunch at The Coach in Clerkenwell later.  Nonetheless, breakfast was ample and excellent and, of course, given its Ozone pedigree already tried elsewhere in the City, achingly trendy.

While in London I also went for dinner at Smokestak with MS, ES and his girlfriend.  Smokestak is only one or two steps up from fast food – we were in and out in an hour – but the food was great and the atmosphere was buzzy.  As MS said, despite the restaurant being famous for its meat dishes (and I loved the fried ox cheek), the vegetarian plates were perhaps the best.  I certainly ate well during my London visit.

Across the two days I was in London I went to four exhibitions.  On LSW’s recommendation from the previous weekend, I went to the Royal Academy to see the large Antony Gormley exhibition (now finished).  It was certainly impressive – not least the engineering that had gone into making several of the rooms dramatic, single-piece displays.

More Anthony Gormley At The Royal Academy

Iron Baby (1999), Matrix (2019) and Clearing VII (2019) By Antony Gormley At The Royal Academy

One room was filled with seemingly continuous loops of metal (8 kilometres worth) resembling a huge circular scribble.  Another was a room filled with silt and water.  Another had two huge cast iron baubles hanging from the roof.  And then another had Gormley’s trademark human forms, also cast in iron, set at various angles and amongst which the crowds could meander.

Host (2019), Piles (2018), Lost Horizon (2008) and Fruit (1993) By Antony Gormley At The Royal Academy

Host (2019), Piles (2018), Lost Horizon (2008) and Fruit (1993) By Antony Gormley At The Royal Academy

These were all certainly memorable but, at the time, I confess I enjoyed looking at his numerous workbooks more.  These showed how the ideas were generated rather than the final forms and it was more calming to look at these rather than negotiate the crowds in the rooms holding Gormley’s main works.

Some Of Antony Gormley's Workbooks

Some Of Antony Gormley’s Workbooks

Subject II By Anthony Gormley At The Royal Academy

Subject II By Antony Gormley At The Royal Academy

The Bridget Riley Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was also impressive.  Photos of much of her work don’t work because they play with our way of seeing so much.  For example, Horizontal Vibration (1961) really does seem to vibrate before your eyes. ‘Current’ (1964) is like an optical illusion that feels destabilising if looked at for more than a few seconds.  These are clever and, I’m sure, were ground-breaking in their time but I love her brightly coloured works with stripes and diagonals more.

Though organised by topic rather than chronologically, the exhibition did a good job of tracing her thinking from her early drawings and the influence of Seurat on her work.  It covered her black and white visual exercises, her moves into curves and then colour and, finally, recent works that resembled Hirst’s dot paintings but which were clearly rooted in what she has done before.  The exhibition was an enlightening and cheering way to pass an afternoon.

Stripes And Diagonals By Bridget Riley At The Hayward Gallery

Currents (1961) And Stripes And Diagonals By Bridget Riley At The Hayward Gallery

I squeezed in a visit to the British Library to see the Buddhism exhibition there. Most of the exhibits were brilliantly, brightly coloured 19th century picture books showing the events in the life of the historical Buddah. There were also much older scrolls, wood panels and palm leaves inscribed with delicate texts and images. Once more, it was hard not to be impressed but, for me, the exhibition lacked a theme and was little more than the sum of its parts.

A Scroll Depicting Mahakala (A Protector Deity) And Tales From The Historical Buddha's Life In Folding Books

A 16th Century Tibetan Scroll Depicting Mahakala (A Protector Deity) And Tales From The Historical Buddha’s Life In 19th Century Folding Books

Nepalese Buddhist Palm Leaf Texts (17th and 12th Century)

Nepalese Buddhist Palm Leaf Texts (17th and 12th Century)

The fourth (and, in my view, best) exhibition I saw was that of a recent body of work by Anselm Keifer at White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey.  Anselm had been featured the day before I visited in the Guardian newspaper and the exhibition had been recommended by a friend.  I had not heard of Anselm previously and I went with no great expectations.

As soon as I entered the gallery I was blown away by the rhythm and enormity of the work in the central hall and then, as I moved into the adjoining rooms, by the scale of the paintings, their depth and the overall sense of brooding dystopia.  The paintings worked from a distance and right up close and I was fascinated even though I didn’t really understand what I was seeing.

Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot By Anselm Keifer

Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot By Anselm Keifer (Here Showing Just Part Of A 30 Vitrine Installation)

The White Cube is a tremendous, huge space; it needed to be to accommodate the work.  The exhibition is on until 26 January next year and I would like to go again (unlike the other exhibitions I saw, its free!).

The White Cube Gallery With Anselm Keifer Paintings

The White Cube Gallery With Anselm Keifer Paintings

Anselm Keifer At White Cube

The Gordian Knot By Anselm Keifer At White Cube (With A Real Axe And Real Blackened Branches)

Superstrings By Anselm Kiefer At White Cube Gallery

Superstrings By Anselm Kiefer At White Cube Gallery

I’m planning one more visit to London before Christmas.  I’m looking forward to another round of exhibitions, breakfasts and meeting up with one or more of our sons.

London Variety Part I

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I have made several trips to London recently.  We continue to provide some increasingly peripheral help to Middle Son’s (MS’s) recovery there but there are other excuses for visits to the capital too.

Last week Forest Green Rovers Football Club (FGR) were playing Charlton, a London team a couple of divisions higher than ‘my’ club.  I took advantage of my retirement flexibility to pop up to London to meet up with Youngest Son (YS) and a bunch of his friends from university and from Australia for a few drinks by the river, the cup game itself, and then rather more drinks than I needed afterwards.  FGR were surprisingly victorious in the game and the evening was a lot of fun.  The Australian contingent maintained their reputation for their loud love of sport.

View Of The Thames Barrier From The Anchor and Hope Pub Before The Big Game

View Of The Thames Barrier From The Anchor and Hope Pub Before The Big Game

Celebrating The Winning Goal At Charlton

Celebrating The Winning Goal At Charlton (Me At Top Of Picture Arms Aloft!)

Next day, LSW joined me in London to take advantage of Eldest Son (ES) being away at the Edinburgh Fringe festival with his Scottish girlfriend and therefore leaving the Barbican flat free for a few days.  The flat is always a comfortable and central base from which to explore cultural and culinary variety in London.  Despite not planning particularly well, we had a full and interesting time including a great ‘small plates’ dinner at one our favourite buzzy restaurants, Popolo.

We had breakfast and coffee in the excellent Today Bread in Walthamstow with MS.  Then LSW and I headed off to Tate Modern to see the Van Gogh exhibition.  We had attempted to visit this show a couple of weeks previously but had arrived to find it closing due to the dreadful incident of a teenager pushing a youngster over a balcony.  Now, on arrival, we discovered that the exhibition had finished earlier in the week; poor planning!

Not to worry though; we switched attention to the Olafur Elliason exhibition called ‘In Real Life’ and we were both impressed.  I recalled seeing his installation in the main Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery over 15 years ago.  That was a strange ethereal work called ‘The Weather Project’ that filled the hall with a sickly, pervasive yellow light.  I wondered if the exhibition would be more of the same, especially as we emerged from the lift to the entrance into an unforgiving light display.  In practice, the exhibition contained some of the themes of the previous work I had seen but it was much more than a few tricks of the light.

Model Room By Olafur Eliasson (2003)

Model Room By Olafur Eliasson (2003)

The exhibition opens with a large, varied array of models, ideas and experiments in a huge ‘Model Room’.  This whets the appetite for what is to come and indicates some of the themes of his work around nature, sustainability, geometry and technology that are to follow in what is a varied and child-friendly show.

Children Enjoying Eliasson's Evolution Project (2001)

Children Enjoying Eliasson’s Evolution Project (2001) At Tate Modern

The closest exhibit to The Weather Project is a 39 metre-long corridor filled with fog of several different colours and ending with an impenetrable white glare, in which you see fellow visitors looming up alongside and in front of you.  It was very unsettling.

Your Blind Passenger By Olafur Eliasson (2010)

Your Blind Passenger By Olafur Eliasson (2010)

What I liked about the exhibition was the variety, the invitation to delve as deeply or not into the material as one wanted, and the engagement with current issues such as the climate emergency.  The exhibit relating to the melting glaciers in Iceland was particularly moving and the exhibits on Greenland tied in with recent articles I have read about ‘ecological grief’ – in this case, the sadness and stress Greenlanders feel for the disappearing ice on their land.

I also really enjoyed the exhibits proposing solutions and not just setting out the environmental and social challenges we face.  An example was that showing Eliasson’s ‘Little Sun’ project on provision of pretty, portable, solar-powered lights.  This is related to, or at least similar to, the devices that the charity Solar Aid provide to third-world families currently reliant on dangerous and polluting kerosene for night light.  It was art with a grounded and practical purpose.

Little Sun Project by Olafur Eliasson (2012)

Little Sun Project by Olafur Eliasson (2012)

LSW and I also went to the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition on Food: ‘FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate’.  This was another exhibition that could be viewed at a variety of levels of detail.  It was rather sprawling across a huge topic spanning composting and waste (probably the most interesting section of the exhibition), farming, trading and food miles, packaging, and eating.

IMG_4113

Ideas For Growing Food (Lettuces) Vertically In Returning, Otherwise Empty Containers, In The Trading In The Eating Section Of The FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate Exhibition

Each section set out the current challenges the world faces given its growing population and our growing expectations for food quality and range.  It then highlighted some sample projects showing how some are trying to meet these challenges.

On the side of the challenges, for example, there was a video showing the transport of a banana from Ecuador across 14 days and 8,800km to an Icelandic supermarket where it is sold for 20 (Euro) cents.  Another video, similar to those I have seen before, showed the horror of factory animal farming.  LSW and I hesitated before choosing to eat roast chicken as usual this weekend just gone!

On the positive side, there were waterless toilets, tableware made from coffee grounds, projects in South America preserving heritage maize species, and ideas of bringing farms (e.g. vertical farms) into cities to reduce transport demand.  There were exhibits underlining the importance of cooking and eating as a social activity and of eating local food that is in season rather than expecting everything all the time.  It was an interesting exhibition but I’m not sure it accelerated my progress – already gradually being made I’m glad to say – towards buying and eating food more sustainably.

IMG_4117

Spoons Designed To Broaden And Enhance The Eating Experience In The Eating Section Of The FOOD: Bigger Than The Plate Exhibition

LSW and I are now planning a further few days in London before the end of the month.  Part II of our various activities there coming up!

Bright, Shiny Perth (And Freemantle)

The third city in Australia that we visited, after Sydney and Hobart, was Perth plus its twin, Freemantle, way out on the west coast.  During our five hour flight over the south coast of Australia we got a sense of Australia’s huge scale.  We had previously admired the 9 mile beaches in Tasmania but now we could see we were flying over beaches on the south coast more than 100 miles long.

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

View Of Perth Centre From Kings Park

Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) had booked us into the Alex Hotel in Perth as the base for our stay in Western Australia.  It was excellent – probably the best value hotel I can remember staying in.  It was central, modern, cool, informal and very comfortable.  The friendly and helpful staff, the buffet breakfast and the honour bar systems in the lounge and roof top seating area were very trusting and relaxing.

Sunset Over The Alex's Roof Top Bar

Sunset Over The Alex’s Roof Top Bar

We were initially disappointed that breakfast was included in the room rate since we had been looking forward to finding the best breakfasts Perth could offer.  However, the breakfast was so good – the fig bread was especially tasty and the coffee was predictably excellent – that we indulged every morning.  These substantial breakfasts plus, I think, the 30 degrees of heat outside, meant that we rarely felt like more than light meals for lunch or dinner.  Not that stopped us sampling the excellent food that seems the norm in Australia (for example at NoMafia, Shadow Bar and Gordon Street Garage).

On our first morning LSW and I walked to Kings Park. This is a 1000 acre site overlooking the Swan estuary and the central business district that contains the botanical gardens and a large tract of native bushland.  It was a good introduction to the plants and, especially, the trees of Western Australia and the views were great across brilliantly sunny, clear air. We flagged after a few hours in the heat.  Fortunately, the Swan Brewery, with its view across the shining Perth Water, is adjacent to the park so planning for refreshments was relatively easy!

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

Swan Brewery From Kings Park

We strolled around the waterfront which is undergoing a huge transformation.  Everywhere we looked the city seemed bright, shiny and vibrant.

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

Perth Waterfront And Typical Graffiti

The following day we took a ferry to Freemantle, the port out on the coast at the end of the Swan River.  Again, the city was clean, tidy and looked great in the brilliant sun.  The historical buildings were rather more grouped together than we had seen in Perth’s centre and the strips of late 19th century and early 20th century colonial buildings were busy with independent businesses but well preserved.

On The Way To Freemantle

On The Way To Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

High Street, Freemantle

We visited two historical prisons and the Freemantle Shipwrecks Museum and each held our interest for an hour or so.  The Roundhouse opened in January 1831 to hold those convicted of a crime in the settlement and was used until 1886.  We were fortunate enough to be visiting just as a demonstration was taking place of the Freemantle Time Ball and Cannon.  This was used daily until 1937 to indicate the precise time to sailors off the coast so they could navigate successfully through the islands and reefs.  The cannon was a good deal noisier than either LSW or I expected!

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Roundhouse, Freemantle

The Freemantle Convict Prison was built in the 1850s by convicts shipped from England and was then used to house them as they continued to be sent to Australia until 1868.  The building was impressive and LSW was rather taken by the standard prison uniform which was rather like some of her own best outfits.  Over 10,000 convicts passed through the prison and helped build the settlement’s infrastructure.  Some convicts served their sentence and went on through various levels of freedom to be successful outside the prison.  Of course, many did not and the exhibition showed how tough conditions were for the convicts, especially those undertaking hard labour in welded-on manacles in over 30 degrees of heat.

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

The Convict Prison, Freemantle

'The Slops': Convict Uniform

‘The Slops’: Convict Uniform

The Shipwreck Museum was stuffed full of information and exhibits and, frankly, we were ready for another nice lunch (which followed very pleasantly at Hush).  I focused on learning about James Stirling who explored the Swan River in 1827 and made the case to the British government for establishment of the Freemantle settlement.  He is an ancestor of LSW’s brother in law so there was an extra twist of interest in the material relating to him in the museum.

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

The Shipwreck Museum, Freemantle

Back in Perth, we went to the Institute of Contemporary Arts which, apart from a nice looking café and an interesting exhibition by Cassils (a Canadian performance artist), was rather empty.  I also went to the Art Gallery of Western Australia which was more conventionally full of Australian, Aboriginal and European art.  A collection of European sculptures by Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Lynn Chadwick and Antony Gormley) was impressive.

Our last full day in Perth ended at one of Australia’s iconic beaches: Cottesloe Beach.  Here was more sculpture; this time, a temporary exhibition of international, modern sculpture in a collection called ‘Sculpture By The Sea’.

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

Sculpture By The Sea, Cottesloe Beach

This exhibition, and Perth’s love of the beach, attracted big crowds.  Navigating these was a novelty given that everywhere else we had been on this trip had been very sparsely populated or entirely empty.  We simply retreated to a bar and watched the lovely sunset.  It was a beautiful way to round off our time in bright, lively and seemingly confident Perth.

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

Sunset, Cottesloe Beach

We used Perth as a base for travel south, north and east in the south-west corner of Western Australia.  I’ll cover my thoughts on some of those journeys in the next post.