A long time ago, probably about the time dinosaurs roamed Hyde Park, way before the evolution of mobile phones and social media, I took my mates to The Ritz for dinner. I was living in a slum at the time; a three-room flat on the first floor of a decaying house in Westbourne Grove. I was sharing it with a budding composer and a medical student. It was the kind of place where you had to go out of the front door to get to the bathroom (which was mostly unspeakable) or the kitchen (ditto).
None of us had any money. So when, one day, I got a large cheque for some work I’d done, I decided to treat my four best friends to the greatest evening ever. These particular people had kept by me through the break up of a long-term relationship. They had listened, without complaining, to my tales of woe; had refrained from giving me any in-depth advice, had let me sleep on their sofas, and had given me free access to their fridges (not that there was ever anything much in them).
I planned therefore, that we would kick the evening off at the Savoy’s American bar, and then go to the Ritz for dinner. For once in our lives we were going to live High on The Hog. With this in mind, I bought myself a white taffeta cocktail dress with a boned bodice and and a fishtail skirt; it made me feel like a million dollars and, after ten minutes struggling with a pair of pliers, I managed to do up the zip.
The night came and off I went to the Savoy. And there were my friends, Beth, Cheryl, Margaret and Tony, all done up like dogs’ dinners too, all of us beaming fit to bust to be in such a place. Okay, so The Dress meant I had trouble sitting down, but I managed it without rupturing anything vital.
We ordered daiquiris because I’d seen them in a film; there was a pianist tinkling away in the background, and everything was all right with the world, when Beth put down her drink and handed me a parcel. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘We’ve bought you a clock. To mark your new life.’ I was slightly nonplussed by this. I don’t know why they thought I needed a clock. Especially a pink china one. But, hey, a present is a present, and I was touched. We ordered another round of daiquiris, and then off we went to the Ritz. That’s such a simple sentence, but to get in a black London cab on The Strand on a rainy evening, and say, ‘The Ritz, please,’ knowing you are going to have dinner there, gives you all kind of fizzy expectations.
The dining room at the Ritz was like something out of Versailles; the walls were lined with mirrors and the ceilings were painted in blue and gold and decorated with gilded knobbly bits, and there were chandeliers like upside down golden trees, and stiff white linen on the tables and crystal winking in the lamplight. If Louis XIV had strolled in at that moment with Mme de Pompadour on his arm he would have felt absolument tout at home. The only bum note for his majesty being us, the giggling serfs, struggling with their menus at a centre table.
We ordered everything that looked expensive, or sounded gorgeous. We confessed frankly to the waiters that we had no idea what to drink with what, and then ordered two of everything they suggested. Other diners were indulging in light chit-chat, and stretching out elegantly to each other as if they were auditioning for a Noel Coward play. I heard one woman say to the man she was with, ‘What he really wants, darling, is for me to divorce him and live with you in New York.’
There was a little band on the dance floor playing show tunes. The four of us grinned at each other, drank more champagne and then put our heads down, and ate. And ate. It was our first decent meal for months. Actually, decent doesn’t begin to describe it. It was heavenly.
None of us had ever experienced anything like it. Waiters didn’t bring the food, they seemed to shimmer in with it. They were like holograms. Silent, helpful,and mostly invisible. You just had to look slightly puzzled, and pffft! there was a bloke in a penguin suit and a cummerbund refilling your wine glass, before dissolving silently away.
The waiters wafted in unending succession to our table with plates loaded with oysters, and then pan-fried steaks (how else do you fry something, except in a pan?) and then sorbets, and poire belle Helene, and coffee and petits fours, and little minty chocolates. They cracked open the bottles of claret and champagne and brandy until we sat back, all of us, flushed, happy and full.
We danced on the little dance floor. We drank more champagne. Everything was mostly perfect, except for my dress. It was now life-threatingly tight, and I began to wonder, if I went for a pee, how I was, a, going to undo it, and then, b, do it up again. I had not brought my pliers with me. If it wasn’t done up all the way, it would fall down. Which was Not An Option.
However, it was now about midnight, and we were the only people left. It was time to go. Relief from the torture dress was in sight. And then I remembered the clock. I had left it at the Savoy. A waiter, sensing a minute disturbance in my neural pathways, materialised by my chair.
‘Madam?’ he murmured.
‘Do you have a telephone I could use? I’ve left my clock at the Savoy.’
Looking at me sympathetically he nodded. ‘I shall telephone to them immediately.’
And with a perfectly serious face, he added, ‘Are you resident at the Savoy?’
‘Not really,’ I said.
And off he went. This is what having servants meant, I realised. They do everything, but everything for you. A few moments later he rematerialised by my side.
‘I am afraid there has been a little difficulty, madam.’ He paused. ‘Was it a pink clock?’
He nodded. ‘Yes, the American bar was evacuated this evening when guests found a bag on the floor. The Scotland Yard bomb squad were called in. They were going to carry out a controlled explosion, I believe. And then they noticed a small pink clock, inside.’
There was silence around the table. ‘My God,’ croaked Beth. ‘We’ll all be arrested.’
But the waiter was unmoved. ‘If you would care to call at the Savoy on your way home, madam, I have instructed them to give you your clock.’
‘What, just like that?’ I asked. ‘And they’re all right about it? I mean, the police don’t want to… interview us, or anything?’ The idea of spending the night in the nick, after an evening at the Ritz, was appalling.
He looked affronted at the idea. ‘Certainly not, madam. I have explained everything to them.’ He paused. ‘Will that be all?’
‘There’s just one more thing, actually,’ I said.
‘You don’t happen to have a pair of pliers, do you?
Pictures via Creative Commons, courtesy of: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2227257
Fellow blogger Naptime Thoughts has been sending me pictures of Walmart People. These are rather oddly dressed people who go shopping in the US supermarket chain Walmart (which owns Asda). For example:
Or possibly even:
She asked me if we have anything similar in Britain, and I’m afraid I’m a bit out of my depth. The closest I could find was Tesco asking customers in its 24-hour stores not to come shopping in their pyjamas.
But frankly, if you have nice jammies, why not? So, instead, I thought I’d do a post on people on the London Underground. The joy of London, is that it doesn’t matter what you look like, nobody takes any notice of you. At All. Many foreigners think this is because we are polite. It’s more to with Not Wanting To Get Involved With A Nutter.
I give you life on the Tube:
Fans of Hartlepool United (don’t ask):
A pink elf:
And my personal favourite:
Poor bloke. I know the Northern Line is bad, but he obviously got on at Embalment.
Pictures courtesy of Pinterest:
People of Walmart:
Once upon a time I worked as a media studies teacher at my local college. The course was run by the art department, for some reason, and it was very jolly and bohemian. Some of the lecturers had gone to the Chelsea School of Art or the Slade in the sixties and they all had beards and hippie skirts and smelt vaguely of patchouli. They were truly nice people and excellent teachers and living in revolutionary times had taught them to be open minded about other people’s ideas. Which meant, really, to me, that they were ready to accept any old rubbish if the person producing it was enthusiastic enough.
Take the guy with the vacuum cleaner. He arrived in the staff room one day with a pile of painted stuff on a tray. It looked like that mountain that Richard Dreyfuss sculpts out of mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was in fact, the contents of a vacuum cleaner dust bag covered in grey gloss paint.
I think, ‘What the fuck is that?’ was my reaction.
But the art lecturers listened to him keenly and nodded in sympathy as he told them how he simply couldn’t get any sponsorship to make more dustbag mounds in order truly to explore his themes of rejection and redemption. I offered to give him the contents of my vacuum cleaner, but I have to say I was thanked gently and then ignored, possibly because it was obvious I was not taking him seriously.
And then, that same year, artist Chris Ofili won the £20,000 Turner Prize for his art, which was splattered with elephant dung. So what do I know?
I began thinking about this again when I went to London’s Tate Britain on Saturday. The gallery, in Pimlico, is a beautiful building with a huge central space. And at the moment it is filled with packing cases and cardboard all nailed together under the name of Dock by sculptor Phyllida Barlow.
The Tate website says:
Suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded, the works of Phyllida Barlow spring from an interrogation of some of the most fundamental aspects of sculpture: its physical attributes and its presence in space.
That is the kind of sentence that you need to read if you are having trouble sleeping. It’s a sales pitch. And it makes me feel that if they have to sell it with fancy words, then it can’t sell itself. Why can’t they just say:
Phyllida Barlow’s works are suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded. She is inspired by the basic idea of sculpture; what it looks like and how it affects its environment.
Which, when you think about it, means absolutely nothing.
It’s interesting that all the other pictures and sculptures in the gallery, the ones that have been executed with skilled draughtsmanship, and an eye for colour and balance, and that absorb you, have really simple descriptions. There’s no need to package them with cheap snake-oil sentences. They speak for themselves.
It doesn’t matter how smarmily Dock is described, it just reminds me of something I might see done by a sixth former at school.
The problem I have with this kind of art is that it is more an expression of its time, than of any particular artistic skill. If the gallery was (God forbid) set on fire, nobody afterwards could recreate a Turner or a painting by William Blake. However, it would be reasonably easy for anyone, given a hammer and some packing cases and bit of gaffer tape, to recreate Dock.
But why would anyone want to?
Pictures from Wikimedia, via Creative Commons:
London is lovely in autumn. There are just too many people in summer and the pavements are sweaty and the Tube is suffocating, but when the leaves start to fall there’s a kind of quietness, even in the busy parts. And standing at the crossing outside Euston there was a clean laundry smell from the people around me, and I was feeling pretty content, and then I saw the No 10 sailing past, while I was stuck in the middle of the road with the pedestrian lights on red.
Plus ca bloody change, as they say in Walthamstow.
And then the lights changed, and the bus pulled in at the stop up the road, and I ran for it, and some doddery old couple were holding it up wanting to know if it went to Kamchatka or wherever and I made it. And I went upstairs and somebody smoked and I fell into a dream, aahhhh….no, that was John Lennon. And nobody is allowed to smoke upstairs now on a bus. So I just stared out of the window and we turned into Gower Street and there was a girl sitting on a trunk in the middle of the pavement, and an old guy with a big box, walking along as though it weighed nothing, and a young lad, obviously his son, carrying the same kind of box, and hurrying along trying to keep up, and I realised that it’s that time of year, when university is starting again, and then out of the other window I saw a blue plaque saying that this was the place where anaesthetic was used for the very first time. And I realised I was short on ideas for a blog post, so I got my phone out, and started clicking away like a demented tourist.
This is Gower Street. Fascinating, huh?
It’s part of Bloomsbury and, in the past, famous for its intellectuals. Its full of university buildings, and the British Museum is really close. But if you’re going to Kensington, like me, you stay on the bus and at the top, you hang a right past the amazing umbrella shop, which I couldn’t take a picture of, on account of somebody’s head being in the way, and you’re on New Oxford Street, coming up to the junction with the Tottenham Court Road, and the whole place is being torn down and rebuilt and it’s a mess. Makes you think what it might have looked like in the Blitz. But without the bodies.
And then you’re on Oxford Street, and there’s not much to say about it, really. If you manage to look down Argyll Street (unlike me, because the bus was too fast) where the tube station is, you’ll see Liberty’s, which used to be an utterly brilliant department store, where ladies up from the counties came for lunch and to wander about the wondrous fabric department. The carpet section was fantastic. A man there once showed me hand-made rugs from Afghanistan decorated with Kalashnikovs all round the border. Now it’s all been updated, (although the actual building is still worth a look); the carpets are in a cupboard somewhere, the cafe’s gone downhill, and there’s only three things for sale at a million pounds each.
Still, there’s Selfridges right at the bottom. The guy who founded it, Harry Gordon Selfridge, lavished the fortune he made from it on showgirls and ended up destitute but, hey, at least he had a good time, and the shop is thriving.
At the bottom of Oxford Street you turn left on to Park Lane, with its swanky hotels on the left, and Hyde Park on the right. After a while you go past the Hilton, which doesn’t look too swanky at all. And is chiefly memorable to me, for the time a mate of mine went out to report on some twit who had attempted to parachute from one of the balconies and landed rather messily. She found one of his hands on the pavement.
Then you turn right round the bottom end of the park, with the back garden of Buckingham Palace on your left, and get ready to turn on to Knightsbridge.
You go past Knightsbridge barracks on the right, but I didn’t bother taking a picture because it’s just a brick wall really. This is where the guards keep their horses; they exercise them in park early every morning. Years ago, I used to go riding in the park, and I’ll never forget one winter morning a whole troop of soldiers just riding out of the mist by the Serpentine. Spooky.
Nearly there. Glance down to your left as we go past the Brompton Road and you’ll get a glimpse of Harrods, the building with the domed roof, which I like mostly because of its Egyptian themed escalator. Really, it’s like being in the pyramids. Only you can get tea and buns afterwards. And their Food Hall is sublime. But go there only in February, when the tourists are hibernating and Christmas is a dirty word.
After that, you go past Princes Gate, below, where 25 people were taken hostage at the Iranian Embassy (that’s No 16) in 1980. When the attackers killed a man and threw his body out of the embassy the SAS were sent in and they rescued all but one of the remaining hostages, and killed five of the six terrorists. The sixth spent 27 years in jail. The embassy itself was a wreck for years, and didn’t reopen until 1993.
Then it’s the Albert Hall, which the bus just jerked past, so not one of my best.
Anyway, here’s a picture of a green hut in front of Kensington Gardens. You see these huts all over London, and they always look as if they’re trying to pretend they’re not there. They are there. They are private cafes for London’s cab drivers. I’ve often thought Dr Who ought to have one of those instead of a police telephone box. People who try knocking on the doors to ask for a cup of tea, spare change or a lift to Kings Cross, are never seen again.
On to Kensington High Street, and out at the station, which is one of the prettiest stations in London. Piccadilly is the most elegant (it has art deco lamps) but the entrance to Ken High Street is full of light and smells of flowers.
And er, that’s it. Eat your heart out, Henri Cartier Bresson.
Well. That went kind of ok. Shortly after I posted yesterday about deciding I should be a responsible parent by taking my daughter to an awards ceremony in London, we went off to catch the train. And that was about the last thing that went to plan. In short, Rose wandered into a drugs deal by the gasworks in Bethnal Green, and me and my mate Cheryl got slightly tipsy in a gay bar.
The trouble started when we got to Euston and decided to get a No 10 bus to Oxford Circus, for no other reason than I like double decker buses, and that OC is on the central line, which you need if you want to take the Tube to Bethnal Green (get on with it, ed).
Of course, once on Oxford Street we had to do a bit of shopping, and soon, instead of being impossibly early, Rose was now going to have to get a move on if she was going to get to the ceremony on time. She was so self-possessed and confident that, in the end, I agreed that instead of taking her all the way, we’d take her to Bond Street, and she could do the last bit of the journey on her own.
I showed her the Tube map. ‘Look, here’s the line you’ll be travelling on…’ I said rather diffidently, because I was having trouble making it out myself.
‘For God’s sake,’ she interrupted. ‘I can read a map. Central Line, right? Going East?’
‘Right,’ and with a kiss and a wave she was disappearing down the escalator.
Cheryl and I wandered off, deciding to head for Soho and get a Chinese meal. Via the shops, of course. It was only after we had finished chatting up some impossibly good looking bloke who was selling handbags, that I realised my phone was going off. I couldn’t find it in my bag. Then Cheryl’s started going off. It was Rose. They had closed the station and told everybody to get out because two trains had broken down. She was lost and panicking that she wouldn’t get to the do.
So off we schlepped, miles back down Oxford Street in the sweaty gritty heat; scooped up Rose, took her to Oxford Circus, pushed through the impossible crowds at the Tube station, and got on to the train with her, amid dire warning of delays and breakdowns.
She was quite happy then, so we got off after one stop, at Tottenham Court Road, leaving Rose to do the rest on her own. Whereupon we promptly got lost. The place is in chaos at the moment. Everywhere round Centre Point is being knocked down or boarded up, and we seemed to wander for miles without finding anywhere to eat (and, as time went by, eat quickly) so we went to a pub off Soho Square. And very nice it was too; full of gorgeous, beautifully dressed men, with TV screens showing cute Youtube videos of playful cats. More importantly the pub served excellent ice-cold Czech lager, which was just what we needed.
A very smart guy in a suit leant across the table next to ours, looked longingly into the eyes of the young man opposite and said, ‘I’m very sensitive, you know.’ Which is the kind of line that immediately makes you think exactly the opposite, but hey, they left together. The beer was so nice we had another….thought about having another and then realised that we ought to apply some self-discipline if we were going to get Rose, and left, with just enough time to get some food from a hot dog stand, which was surprisingly good.
Rose then rang to say she was leaving the do by taxi, and would meet us shortly. So much for us acting like hawk-eyed chaperones every inch of the way. But she met up with us no problem at Tottenham Court Road, hauling an enormous goody bag. She had missed out on the award for best teen blogger but was in really high spirits. She had networked like mad, including buttonholing the editor of Company magazine (‘She has the same shoes as me, mum!’) and other important media types about an internship for the summer.
It was only much later, when we were on the train home, that she confessed she had got lost outside Bethnal Green Tube, and that some nice American girl had pointed her in the right direction (God Bless America!) and that when she was nearing the venue, she practically walked into two guys doing a little business involving a plastic bag and ready cash, who both looked up and saw her watching. At which point she did the sensible thing and scuttled off, luckily finding the entrance round the next corner.
So, although I’m still calming down from that piece of information, everything did work out OK. Rose got a little more street-wise, I was on hand when she really needed me, I had a drink with an old friend, and we saw some nice videos with cats.
Plus, we didn’t miss the train home.
There’s a little park in the City of London that is like a secret, other world. It’s been built in the ruins of a Christopher Wren church that was bombed in the war. You walk up the steps, through the archway, and, well, you’re in Narnia. It has little paths, and all sorts of exotic plants, and miniature lawns, and in the middle is a pool and a circle of benches surrounding it. There is no noise of traffic and, on a summer’s day, above you there is only dappled sunlight and a blue, blue sky – if you’re lucky, that is, because this is London we’re talking about.
So there I was, sitting on one of those benches at lunchtime, eating a prawn mayonnaise sandwich from the Tesco Metro on Eastcheap and generally wondering if anybody would notice I didn’t go back to the office, when this bloke wandered in, and sat down next to me.
He was in his late sixties, maybe; he had quite a craggy face and grey hair, and he was wearing a tweed jacket and a polo neck jumper and jeans. I didn’t pay too much attention to him, after all, he was just another passing stranger. But then I noticed he had reached down into the little backpack by his side and instead of a camera, or a sandwich or a book, he had brought out a CD case, and then he just sat there with it on his lap, staring at it. Well then, I looked at the case too, and it said, I am not kidding, H&R Block tax prep CD, whatever that meant. I thought he was a bit weird, finished my sandwich and went back to work, on time for a change.
Next day, he was in there again, same bench as me again, and this time, when he got the CD out, he started crying. Not the sort of frenzied weeping, that would make you think he really was crazy, but just slow tears dropping on the case. I thought about moving, but I couldn’t leave him like that, so I rummaged in the bag I’d got with that day’s sandwich (beef and horseradish), got out the little paper napkin it came with and passed it to him, and he took it without a word and blew his nose.
I said something like, ‘Are you all right?’ And he nodded. After a bit he just looked at me and shrugged and tried to smile.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I appreciate your kindness.’
So he was an American.
I said something like, ‘Oh that’s ok,’ and opened my yoghurt, and when I’d had about three spoonfuls, he began to talk.
‘I used to meet my wife here,’ he said. ‘We started coming when it opened, in 1970. Before we married.’ He paused. ‘She died last month. In the Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ Which sounded a bit inadequate, so I added, ‘Was she an American too?’
He smiled then. ‘No, she was a Brit like you. From Tunbridge Wells. Feisty. God was she feisty. I met her at the Grosvenor Square riots in 1968. We’d both come to protest about the Vietnam war and got more than we bargained for, let me tell you. We had police horses coming at us, and cops swinging their batons. And they’d closed the square off so nobody could get out. God, what a mess; I’d just gone there for a peaceful protest, and next thing I knew some cop was taking a swipe at me, and this girl, who’d I’d never seen before, just whacked him, just like that with this stupid beaded hippy bag. Well that was us both in the cooler.’
I looked at this man again. I was trying to imagine him as a young student. He looked at me and smiled.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said. ‘I’m just a college professor now. Some old fart. But we old people were young once too, you know. Hey,’ he grinned. ‘I’m younger than Mick Jagger.’
‘Everybody’s younger than Mick Jagger,’ I said. ‘Even God.’
He laughed and looked around at the soft grey walls and the shining trees.
‘Well, go on,’ I said. ‘Don’t keep me in suspense. What happened then?
He shrugged. ‘So after we’d been formally introduced by the cops, we kind of hit it off big time. She worked near here and I was at Imperial College. I used to come and see her at lunchtimes, and then when this garden opened we came here all the time. And then I got my degree and we got married, and then we moved to California.’
He reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. ‘That’s her. Jeanie. On our honeymoon in New York.’
I peered at the picture of the pair of them; he had black hair then, and plenty of it, and an extremely dodgy moustache, and she looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story, and they were both holding some ridiculous glass apple paperweight or something and pulling faces at it. ‘Big Apple, ‘ he said. ‘Yeah? We bought it as a joke.’
I put the empty yoghurt pot in the bag with the sandwich wrapper.
‘We never came back,’ he went on, grasping the CD case.’Not until now.’ He looked around the garden. ‘It’s even more beautiful than it was then.’
There was a long silence, and then I couldn’t avoid the question any longer. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but what is it with the CD? I mean you can’t have her ashes in there…’ I trailed off. Why did I always have to be so tactless and blundering? The bloke looked as if I’d stabbed him. He grasped the CD case even more tightly if anything, and then he just sighed, big time, and opened it. Inside was a pressed flower.
‘She took it the last day we came,’ he said. ‘To remind her. She was going to come back. We were always going to come back, but we had kids and commitments and then when we had the time she got sick, and she made me promise that I would come after she…’ he breathed deeply. ‘After she died.’
He touched the flower very gently with his forefinger, and then, of course, just as I was going to say something sensitive and lovely, my mobile phone rang. It was work. I should have just ignored the call. Graham, my boss, was on the warpath. ‘You’re late, again,’ he said. ‘Where the hell are you? I’ll have to give you a verbal warning, now, and one more of those and you are on your way out, Karen.’
‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, looking at the guy and his cd flower. I stood up and moved away a little. ‘I’ll be…
‘Cut the crap,’ said Graham. ‘I want you back in five.’
In five? Who says ‘in five? ‘In five minutes, Graham. You’re not on TV you know, you’re a bloody IT monkey.’
‘Don’t you speak to me like that. I have people lining up to do your job.’
‘Well bloody get them, then. I’m resigning. You can stuff your job where the sun don’t shine.’ I rang off and then turned back to the guy.
‘I’m really sorry about that…’ I began. Only he wasn’t there.
There was nobody in that lovely park at all, just me and some faded petals on a seat.
I wrote this story as a challenge from Geanieroake, who gave me three objects I had to include; a cell phone, a red apple paperweight, and a CD entitled H&R Block tax prep CD.