Overstepping The Mark To Normality?

Over the last couple of weeks I have done a number of things that have pushed my risk of catching Covid 19.  I haven’t caught it – presumably thanks to being double vaccinated – but have felt in jeopardy on a few occasions.  With the exception of our planned trips to Scotland (lockdown restrictions permitting) when Eldest Son and his fiancés’ baby arrives and then for Christmas, I plan to reduce my exposure to the pandemic a bit in the next few weeks.

For the first time since the pandemic struck, Long-suffering Wife (LSW) and I went to a large indoor event.  We attended two very interesting talks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival along with a few hundred others who were mostly masked and who were, by and large of the age that would have been double vaccinated.  Any feeling of risk of contagion was quickly overtaken by my interest in what was being said.

Feargal Cochrane And Patrick McGuire Discussing Northern Ireland At The Cheltenham Literary Festival

The first talk was about the Labour Party and whether it has any chance of winning an election any time soon.  The conclusion between three Labour party sympathisers seemed to be a resounding ‘no’ but the reasons and the possible deflections to that verdict were well set out in arguments that seemed to spill new thoughts and ideas every few seconds.

The second talk concerned the recent history of Northern Ireland.  This is of particular interest because Youngest Son (YS) and his Belfast-born partner are now making their careers and lives in Northern Ireland.  Having visited a couple of times, we love the country and want it to succeed.  The risks to that success are rooted in history there, recent disinterest in Westminster, and the touch-paper lit by Brexit.  It was a fascinating talk and increased my wish that the current difficulties around the new Northern Ireland Protocol agreement with the European Union can be resolved soon and relatively painlessly.

Then, last week, I travelled up to London.  I hunkered down in a corner on the train up and then walked across London to our flat.  On the way I visited the new Marble Arch Mound.  The Mound and the view from it was a lot less impressive than the scaffolding on which it is built but the light show inside was a nice bonus.

The main purpose of my London trip was to visit my dentist there for a check-up and hygienist appointment that had been postponed several times over the last year due to the pandemic.  The Covid protocols in the dental surgery made me feel very safe and I got away with just a couple of bloodied gums and some new dental hygiene advice.

I felt less safe on the tube to and from a football match (it wasn’t quite coincidence that my football team – table topping Forest Green Rovers – were playing at Leyton Orient the day after my dental appointment!).  Despite guidance that masks should be worn, only a minority did so.  Fortunately I only needed to be on the tube for four stops each way. 

At the match itself, masks were completely absent but the excitement of the football always swamps any feelings I have of Covid risk during games.

Celebrating Shared Spoils After A Tight Game (Nice Orient Mascots!)

The visit to London was a lovely break.  I visited an unusual and stimulating exhibition by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey.  His art there incorporated old maps (which I love), ideas about colonialism and the story of his renovation of a bat infested grain silo complex.  The White Cube is a wonderful space and it’s free to visit.

Variety Of Ibrahim Mahama’s Work At The White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey
Ibrahim Mahama’s ‘Capital Corpses’ – 100 Rusty Sewing Machines That Bash Away On Vintage Desks (Its Quite a Noise!)

I also got to see Middle Son (MS) and his partner at the football match but also for dinner and lunch.  It was great to catch up with what they are up to. Dinner at Bottega Prelibato was excellent and felt pretty safe. 

However, it was during that dinner that I decided that I would forgo another planned London trip the following week during which I was scheduled to see the band Tourist with MS.  The idea of being in a cavernous, enclosed space with several bouncing and singing, young and partially vaccinated people felt like an overstepping of the Covid risks.  MS and his partner were able to use the tickets and I’m left with regret but well-being.

Other safe events were a visit by YS and his mate on their way to a holiday in Wales and a simultaneous visit by a couple who have been decades-long friends from London.  All had gone beyond the call of duty by having recent lateral flow tests – something I need to get in the habit of doing – before visiting us.  It was an extremely convivial weekend full of chats, walks, good food and a local art exhibition by a West Country chap called Stuart Voaden.  His day was made too by the fact that our friends purchased some of his work.  We all had fun.

What felt less safe – although it was fun too – was a visit to the local pub last week.  For a few weeks now, since the weather got colder, I have been drinking inside rather than in the pub garden.  Even during the busy recent Quiz Night the environment felt relatively Covid-free.  However, the ‘Jam Night’ last week was a night of full blown sing songs and, as I left after a few noisy beers, I wondered if that had been my peak risk of infection during the last few weeks.  I’m going to go to the pub on quieter nights for a while.

Everyone has a different feel for the balance of risk in relation to Covid.  I know that I’m lucky that I can choose how much risk I take.  The last few weeks have been interesting in helping me determine what is and what is not ok for me in advance of my booster jab and, one hopes, a final decline in Covid cases.

Postscript: Just one more shout out for our Café-au-Lait dahlias which have given me so much pleasure as cut blooms over the last few months.  They will continue for a little while yet until they are blasted by the first frost. 

Also, I am pleased that my limited range of vegetable harvest has been decent again this year.  I can’t grow a lot of things since I struggle to protect them from mammals both large (deer, badgers) and small (voles, mice).  However, some basic fencing and conservative plant choices have meant we have plenty of squash, chard, beetroot, onions and potatoes stored in the old stables as we enter winter.

Home Grown Veg! The Crown Prince Squash (Top Right And 1 of 5) Is A Whopping Stone In Weight

Home From Home

I retired about 30 months ago.  I moved back to the family home in Gloucestershire and gave up my London flat to Eldest Son (ES).  The flat is centrally and very conveniently located in the Barbican but it was, during my 18 years of mid-week living there, never more than a bolt-hole for temporary occupancy.  It rarely received any love and attention and, if I am honest, was only subjected to a proper cleanse when Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) occasionally came to visit.  (Then, I’d ‘tidy’ beforehand to create a tolerable impression, and LSW would tut at my inadequacy and grudgingly do a more thorough ‘clean’).

ES continues to live in the flat and now shares it with his girlfriend.  They were in Paris last week celebrating their birthdays.  That gave LSW and I the opportunity to pop up to London to see Middle Son, Youngest Son and some old friends, and to visit a few exhibitions.  We had a great time.

What made the trip especially nice was that our stay was anchored by a very comfortable stay in the Barbican flat.  We were able to see how it has been turned into a spotless, house-plant friendly, warm (in all senses of the word) home by ES and, especially, his girlfriend.  It’s great to see the flat still being put to such good use.

Our London trip was also helped by lovely clear blue skies.  All cities look better in sunny weather but the views of the Thames and its surrounds are especially enhanced by brilliant winter sun.

Bright London Day From Westminster Bridge

Bright London Day From Westminster Bridge

LSW and I visited the Garden Museum in Lambeth.  The tower was open and, having puffed up a long, steep, spiral, stone staircase, we came out onto a lovely view of Lambeth Palace, the Houses of Parliament, the City and, of course, the winding Thames.

View From The Tower Of The Garden Museum, Lambeth

Part of the Panoramic View From The Tower Of The Garden Museum, Lambeth

We also saw the latest exhibition in the museum.  This was a small but concisely curated history of London’s Royal Parks.  It covered their origins as royal hunting grounds in the 15th century and their gradual opening up to increasing proportions of the public during recent centuries.  It covered their use as recreation spaces (and how such recreation has changed over time), places of protest and places for celebration.  Perhaps most surprising was the section on how the parks have been used for military training including trench warfare during the First World War.

Feeding Pelicans In St James's Park

Feeding Pelicans In St James’s Park

We walked along the Embankment south of the Thames to Tate Modern; a really refreshing walk in the sun.  While LSW went off on a shopping assignment, I wandered through parts of Tate Modern and took in the Dora Maar exhibition there.  I only knew of Maar as one of Picasso’s many muses but the exhibition shows her to be a successful and diverse artist in her own right.

Kara Walker's Huge Fountain In The Turbine Room At The Tate Modern

Kara Walker’s Huge Fountain In The Turbine Room At The Tate Modern (Inspired By The History Of Slavery)

Maar’s early fashion photos are clearly impressive even to my untrained eye.  I was less satisfied with her surrealist photography, although it was interesting to see her attempts to meld the photographic capture of reality with the weirdness and spontaneity of the surrealist movement she became part of.  More interesting, were her later paintings.  One of these captured brilliantly, I thought, the inevitable tension of the period when she was living with Picasso under the same roof as his wife!

The Conversation By Dora Maar

The Conversation By Dora Maar (1937) – A Tense Moment Between Mistress and Wife?

For me, the best exhibition LSW and I visited during our stay was the Anselm Keifer exhibition at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey which had astonished me back in late November.  I loved the way the enormous art worked for me when standing right back from it and when right up close.  The exhibition was almost as impactful this time as last.  I will remember it for a long time.

Anselm Kiefer Painting at The White Cube Gallery - Standing Back And Up Close

Anselm Kiefer Work at The White Cube Gallery – Standing Back And Up Close

However, almost as good was the exhibition of colonial Indian master artists’ work at the Wallace Collection.  The art was commissioned by leaders of the East India Company at the height of colonial Britain to capture the fauna, flora and culture of paintings of India.

Indian Flora And Fauna By Shaikh Zain ud-Din (1780)

Indian Flora And Fauna By Shaikh Zain ud-Din (1780)

The exhibition showed how the Indian artists cleverly and subtly chafed against their subordinate position by portraying their masters in uncomfortable or unusual positions.  For example, a grimacing British officer was shown lying ill at ease in a coffin-like box being carried by beautifully painted natives.  Elsewhere, a daughter of an officer was portrayed on a wonderfully rendered horse surrounded by clearly proud, indigenous stable hands, but with her face hidden from view by her bonnet.

Best of all in this exhibition were the wonderfully detailed and beautifully painted pictures of the animals and plants of India.  The animals had every hair of fur meticulously drawn and the pictures of butterflies and birds in branches of trees were cleverly structured and strikingly laid out.  I love the Wallace Collection and this was another very good exhibition there.

I’m in London again next month and am looking forward to more cultural exploits then, although ES will be in town this time and so the flat’s sofa bed will have to suffice for me.

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.