4th August, 2016
We are waiting in the queue on the runway at Heathrow, for our turn to make our way into the sky. I have mixed feelings about leaving.
There is a sense of anticipation and curiosity about the next destination and also a feeling of relief because the exhaustion is mounting and the UK is now one country that can be ticked off, but there is regret about leaving the place where my daughter, Cleo, now lives, although she will re-join us in Amsterdam in two days, with her husband, for the next stage of the journey.
I felt at home in London and could have stayed on. The nights when we gathered in Cleo’s apartment by the Linden tree canopy, and she cooked for us, were amongst the best. We ate dinner around the television screen watching early episodes of Luther, that they hadn’t yet seen, and it was a welcome change from dining out. That lifestyle rapidly loses its appeal after a few nights in a row. The food is too rich, although I do relish the break from my normal routine as cook and provider, night upon tedious night. Sometimes I like cooking. I get satisfaction from producing something tasty and well balanced but equally I resent it, when I’ve got a lot of work on the go. Then, quite frequently, I burn good food because my mind is not really on the task, or I have the laptop open on the bench and I’m trying to work and cook.
I will use this flight time, 45 minutes, to record some impressions of our stay.
The Serpentine Gallery — One bright morning we walked from our hotel in Notting Hill to see the extension designed by the recently deceased, Iraqi born, London based architect Zaza Hadid, (1950 – 2016) at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. ‘Are you sure it is within walking distance’ I asked my husband, knowing how he likes to ramble on foot but also aware that we were off to Highgate cemetery at mid-day and already I was feeling tired and still fluffy in my head, still tipped upside down. ‘Yes, it’s an easy walk,’ he said, striding on his long legs, a whole lamp post in front. This is always how he conducts his walks with me. The first time we went to Europe, in our early twenties, I was shocked. We stepped off the train and he marched off and before long he was a whole village ahead of me. He can’t help it. This is his style. He focusses on the mission, whereas my way is to trail behind, on my much shorter legs, and soak up the ambience of the scenes around me.
The sun shone as we walked through the meadows of Hyde Park. In the mid-distance I spied a man half sitting, one knee bent, the other leg resting there, the calf outstretched, a trembling vision amongst the long grass and dandelions, of rest and contentment, I thought. Julian hurried on. ‘How much further?’ I called. ‘Not far, now’ he called back. ‘But I can’t see the gallery,’ I complained. ‘Look there’s the water’ — a thin line on the horizon — ‘it’s over there.’ But it wasn’t. He’d tricked me. It was a small lake and there was no building in sight. ‘Julian,’ I called. ‘You don’t really know where you’re going.’ I turned on Google maps and stabbed in ‘Serpentine Gallery.’ It was another 500 metres, and then a right turn, and then…
But it was worth the long walk to see the strange futuristic space, with a small nod to Gaudi perhaps and to caves of stalagmites, its moulded concrete dripping from the high ovoid roof onto the floor. What was its function exactly? An afternoon tea pavilion, a wedding venue, maybe. Today it was set up for tea and drinks and so we rested in the cool, green and white interior sipping a drink that was a combination of elderflower, lemon juice, apple, egg white and soda. Through windows that looked like bubbles, or viewing panels in a spaceship there were glimpses of a ‘new perennial’ terrace garden overflowing and effusive. Zaza Hadid had a difficult time in the UK getting any of her designs built. She had far more success in Europe where they embraced her computer generated, fantastically engineered, impossible designs. Buildings that defied logic and gravity…
London was on high alert the week of our stay and people’s anxiety was palpable, particularly in places of high congestion, like the tube station in Oxford Circus. One day while exiting, I watched people on the opposite escalator going down the steep, long portal, a collection of different ethnicities, ages, fashions, colours, gathered together. They were leaning forward, like skiers, hands on the moving rail, a stream of humanity, like faces in a Goya painting, being conveyed into hell.
Each time I ventured into those tight spaces I grew anxious and my chest would constrict. I have never enjoyed travelling on the underground, but like everyone else, I use it for its efficiency and speed. Now in 2016 it really does require courage to voyage there. At the rush hour, somewhere between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch the train stopped in the dark and the heat and I found myself falling back into a childhood pattern and praying, ‘Please God, please God keep everyone safe.’ People wedged in a tube like a digestive tract with a black tunnel skin wound tightly round, everyone of us, vulnerable.
Further down the carriage I noticed an elderly Chinese man with a very straight back, his head bent slightly in a posture that suggested he was meditating. I might have got it wrong but his restful pose settled me. Observing people is a good distraction in stressful situations. I smiled at a little Indian baby next to me, nestled into his mother, brown eyes upon me, huge in his fine boned, delicate olive-skinned face. His mother turned and said, ‘I’m sorry he’s staring at you.’ But I was encouraging him. ‘He’s lovely, I said. A toddler sat next to her. ‘How do you manage them both on the escalators,’ I asked. ‘It’s harder when I bring the double buggy, ‘ she said, heading to the door, in her gold-yellow Sikh flowing pants, the little one tucked under her arm, the toddler holding her hand.
Later I met up with Julian and we waited for our train. Beside us on the platform two millenials, young men with all the swagger and confidence of youth were talking very loudly into their phones. And when the train drew in they leapt on and continued their business meetings in the tight spot by the doors, where you hang onto whatever is near — a pole, a hanging strap, your husband. One of these creatures was wearing a very smart suit, made from fine pale grey wool with a pattern of white and grey threads arranged in squares. Tucked into the pocket of his waistcoat, he had pushed a flowing yellow silk handkerchief. At the conclusion of the call he turned to his friend and exclaimed, ‘Fucken retard.’ Julian caught my eye and grinned. ‘It’s the boss’s wife. She’s a fucken retard. I told her we had to meet at ten to fucken free and do you think she…’ his voice trailed away as he exited the train.
On the underground people engage in a lot of reading — newspapers, books, magazines, information on their phone screens. They plug in their earphones to block out the unpleasantness. People cart their luggage on and off, they drag helium party balloons, gold numerals saying ‘30’ with weights on the bottoms that slide along the floor. They apply makeup. I watched a young woman change her face. Before she began the transforming process I thought she had the kind of beauty, with her pale skin and symmetrical features, dark grey eyes and high cheekbones, her topknot that would have appealed to many a portrait painter from Degas to Lucien Freud. He might have liked her deliberately tattered and ripped blue jeans and her outrageously high cork soled platform sandals. I watched her applying her eyebrow powder. She used a light brush that she dabbed in a ritualistic way, three taps on each of the three different brown powder tones in her compact before stroking each individual hair it seemed, making a perfect semicircle above her eyes. She used a big brush to dab powder over her face, more repetitive movements. She defined her cheekbones with blusher, pulled the mascara brush through her lashes, at least five times for upper and then lower and then she stepped off the train.
A couple sitting opposite me were genuinely scary. They had matching brown walking shoes and matching style small wheelie bags, one brown the other gold. The wife looked like Mrs Twit from Roald Dahl’s children’s novel The Twits. She had a large, grey and purple, pitted, drooping face and her head was shaped like a rectangle running vertically on her neck. I’d noticed them when the woman pinched her husband hard, on the arm, to stop him picking at a yellow paper label on the bag between his legs. ‘Don’t touch that label,’ she said in a sinister voice. ‘It’s MINE.’ He looked away through the dirty, smeared lenses of his plastic spectacles. The train rocked. They sat in silence for three stops. Then she began a pantomime. Hand extended she counted her fingers and I caught the words, ‘Potatoes, bread, sugar.’ She stopped. She did it again. ‘Potatoes, bread, sugar,’ and then he, with a stroke of inspiration, said, ‘Tea.’ She was pleased with this. ‘Potatoes, bread, sugar, tea…’ The finger routine again. In unison they said ‘Butter.’ They had their shopping list.
We dined out at Nori, the Soho restaurant of the very successful Yotam Ottolenghi and the food was very good but the thing I will remember about this night is not the delicious plates of food but the behaviour of the couple at the table near us. During our meal, Cleo’s husband overheard them complaining about the meal. ‘The chicken is dry,’ said the husband. The waiter was called to the table and this is what we heard the husband say, ‘The meal has not met our expectations… We’ve come all the way from Wales… We have all the Ottolenghi cookbooks… We’ve watched all the programmes in the cooking series…’ The waiter knelt at the table, his back to us, receiving the criticism. You could tell from his posture that he was responding evenly and kindly. The couple were bathing in his attention. ‘It’s okay mate,’ said the husband as he got up to leave, ‘we’re just giving you our feedback,’ as the waiter helped the wife on with her coat, she smiling coyly. When I was sure they had gone I asked the waiter, as he was passing, I couldn’t help myself, ‘Was he a total tosser?’ The waiter burst out laughing.
The Victoria and Albert Museum — the underground train deposited us directly across the road from the Victoria and Albert museum and we walked through a tunnel of music, a man was playing an Irish harp and his classical music filled the space with swelling, amplifying sound. On the walk we read billboards advertising an exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear but illogically I decided I was going to soak up the exhibits in the main halls, explore the architecture, visit the shop where once I bought a collage art work, of layered handmade paper, pieces of gold and flecks of thread, the colours orange, pink, turquoise, yellow. It floats on a white ground in a box frame of speckled gold. I see it everyday sitting on the bookshelves in the lounge at home, and I love it.
So while Julian attended Undressed I wafted through the halls, taking photos of rich, exotic, ancient objects especially from the Middle East, Iran and Iraq, from Turkey, Afghanistan and India and one ethereal Napoleonic red silk dress, high waisted, with chenille thread embroidery around the yoke. Out in the courtyard I photographed the High Victorian brick and stone building through a contemporary installation, a kind of seedpod, made of steel and Perspex, but for most of the time my attention was taken by two water nymphs in the central pond leaping and frolicking. One child sat like a fairy on a leaf pad, the other lay back in her white high-waisted, simple shift dress, quite flat with the water about her ears, in a way that reminded me of Lizzie Siddal in John Millais’s bath, catching pneumonia, while the master got his iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting.
While waiting for Julian, I browsed through the catalogue of Undressed and realised I had missed a really good show. Why did I make that odd decision? Julian was quiet. He’d bought a copy of the catalogue for me. There was no time now, to rush through. We were taking tea at the Ivy with Cleo and the parents of the little girl she nannies for on one day of her week. ‘I will have to go back,’ I said.
What joy to meet a small child in London, just eleven-months old a well-loved, well-adjusted first child she is the lightness in Cleo’s working week. Sometimes Cleo sends photos and once a video of this dear little girl racing down the pale pine floorboards of the English house, in a walker, squealing in response to Cleo’s encouragement. I play the video sometimes to lift my spirits when I am down.
I had bought a soft, pink, floppy bunny with Liberty paisley on the inside of the rabbit’s ears and a book about a pink bunny, with just snippets of a story and different textures to touch. Cleo told me she likes the feel of Velcro and there was a bright pink circle of the sticky texture for her to scratch. The soft toy rabbit was like taking coals to Newcastle because this child might have the biggest collection of soft toys in London. Once Cleo sent me a photo of her lying on the floor surrounded by ten different Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse soft toys. And predictably on this day, the bunny was tossed aside but the book and the interesting surfaces were studied, page by page, again and again. Some children just are more appealing. This little one is petite and perfectly formed and has a lovely nature, quite shy and bashful but when something pleases her, her entire face breaks into a radiant smile. I’ve seen photos of her smiling with her whole body, eyes, mouth, teeth, of which she has a lot now, and even her bare feet they tighten and stretch in pleasure. At our afternoon tea, I sat across from her smiling and she in return gave me an uncertain, winsome smile dropping her head and burrowing into her mother. ‘I would love to touch her,’ I said, meaning just her hand, but her Daddy leaned over, plucked her off her mother’s knee and plonked her on my lap. Not a good idea. She didn’t cry but reached for her father.
We said our goodbyes and I returned on the underground, back through the tunnel of music, in a state of high exhaustion to view the show. All the way there and even during the viewing I was hating this driven aspect of my personality, the way it pushes on disregarding the state of my tired body. ‘You’ll be pleased later on, to have the memory,’ the driver always says.
I learned some interesting things in the exhibition, that the French word lingerie derives from ‘linge’ for linen which is where underwear history begins in France in 18th century with undershirts and drawers for men, to protect their over-garments and chemises in daintier french linen for women. I viewed the array of boned, hooped and caged crinoline to the sound of arpeggios, in the style of Michael Nyman’s piano composition for Jane Campion’s film The Piano. It’s amazing how that one score has influenced an entire generation of film music and beyond.
The colours of the early underwear astounded me. I saw a British ‘stay’ in chilli red silk damask dated 1740 – 85 and a delicate pale blue cotton twill, whalebone corset and another called a ‘dermathistic corset’ to protect the vulnerable parts of a woman’s body, the advertisement said, in a beautiful combination of pleated gold cotton sateen and dull red, with bronze fastenings and a trim of cream lace at the bust. But the standout corset was the hot pink garment on the cover of the catalogue, made of silk satin, lace and whalebone, with a steel busk and metal eyelets its attribution and date, ‘probably Britain, 1890-5.’
Seeing the corsets and their intricate fastenings triggered a memory of my grandmother, tying her undergarment, pulling the laces around metal catches, pulling hard to tighten the thing and then looping another tie through holes near the bottom of the garment, before she attached her stockings to the suspenders and finally put on her bloomers. The entire operation took ages and never failed to fascinate me.
I saw men’s undies, silk embroidered socks, and a wide belt made out of pale brown cotton sateen to hold his tummy in and a silk dressing gown. Women’s daywear included samples of Liberty silk tea dresses and a pair of Chinese lounge pyjamas, made of indigo and blue silk. There were hostess gowns and kaftans which were followed by contemporary bustiers and girdles worn over clothing, or just on their own as provocative high fashion, examples from Vivenne Westwood, John Paul Gautier, John Galliano and from Agent Provocateur. Most of all though, in the 1970s section, I enjoyed reading about the feminists who rejected the bra, saying it ‘suppressed’ the breasts…
The final two days in London were spent in the company of my mother’s friend, Miriam Frank. I wrote a review of her memoir My Innocent Absence: Tales from a Nomadic Life 2010). It’s available on my website in the Reviews section. Miriam lives in a light-filled apartment designed by Richard Rogers, right on the Thames at Battersea, beside a 17th century church. Apparently the artist J.M.W. Turner liked to paint his London sunsets here and would be rowed across the river to this position beside the church. On the day of our visit the clouds were flossy lilac and grey above the London panorama but when Miriam described for us the fiery skies that turn the city and the water and the rooms of her apartment red and gold, I could see from her expression that the light effects must spread enchantment. She said, ‘I see what Turner saw.’ I would have loved to witness a sunset. On this day when the light shone through it touched the tall plants arranged together near the windows, the walls of books, the table set with afternoon tea china — platters of blinis and plates of pastries and European cakes. It lit up the paintings on her white walls, the very vivid, outstanding expressionist canvases and watercolours painted by her husband, the Austrian painter Kortokraks.
On the final day I met Miriam at the National Gallery and together we viewed the exhibition Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck. This exhibition was satisfying. It had an intelligent curatorial narrative, starting, the ‘wrong way round,’ in the close present with the British portrait painter Lucien Freud and a sample of works from his own collection that showed some of the influences on his painting and moving through the Post Impressionists, Matisse and Degas to the older English painters Joshua Reynolds and ending on Van Dyck. Each gallery juxtaposed the favourite works in the artist’s personal art collection, with examples of their own paintings. It’s not often you find the perfect art companion, someone who shares a similar perspective and who studies the art at the same pace engaging with each work responding, questioning, analysing what she is seeing. That’s how it was on this day with Miriam.
I had wanted to take Miriam to lunch but no, she insisted that I was her guest and she had arranged our booking at Portrait, the rooftop restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery, her favourite London dining place. The table overlooked the London skyline — copper domes, columns, slate rooftops, Big Ben in the distance. It was like viewing a hand-tinted watercolour scene through a diorama. I had to give myself a pinch to remind myself that the view was real, that I was actually here in London experiencing the beauty of a very great city and that I was a grown up person having lunch and sharing an intimate conversation with a brilliant woman, an anaesthetist and an author, my friend who had just asked me if I might read her latest manuscript and offer feedback.
And about the food at the restaurant, following the linguine with zucchini, lemon, pine nuts and parmesan I experienced a delectable, sensational sweet treat. The ‘lemon posset with blackcurrants’ was served in a small glass from which I took tiny teaspoons, plunging through the sticky blackcurrant topping to the tart just set liquid, a combination of lemon, cream, egg and sugar underneath