London’s streets were deserted last week.  Everyone seemed to be home, struggling to cope with the coldest spell we’ve had in years.  But theatregoers were still out and about, scuttling as quickly as frozen pavements would allow.  I could barely speak on the way back from the Bridge Theatre after a production of Julius Caesar but that was more from shivering than lack of things to say.

First, a confession:  I know this play well, having studied it at school.  In fact, I think I could have understudied most of the parts.  But this was a Julius Caesar with a difference.  It was performed at a cracking pace, coming in at a whisker over two hours.  Michael Grandage is well-known for insisting that a play – particularly Shakespeare – can’t hang around, but this would have left even him breathless.  Lack of an interval helped, but even so …

It worked, with one exception.  The famous Friends, Romans, countrymen … speech could have done with Mark Antony feeling his way a little more; there was a slight sense that he was working against the clock and taking the crowd’s reactions for granted as a result. He should be trying to win them over.  After the Donmar’s all-female cast, it felt more authentic to have women in some of the roles, notably Michelle Fairley as Cassius and a perfectly opinionated Casca.  Top marks go to Ben Whishaw for diverting from the usual cadences of his script to provide a thoughtful, flawed and natural Brutus and David Calder for creating the first credible Julius Caesar that I’ve seen.

If Julius Caesar was a scamper, Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic needed some serious paring.  I saw it at second preview so it might have had its much-needed trim by now.  The first act could have done with at least 15 minutes off it and I’d prescribe half-an-hour off the whole production.  Even then, it would come in at well over three hours.

It needs it because it’s flabby in places, but also to counteract some very unpalatable violence.  I shan’t say any more, but it’s a lesson in checking what you’re going to see before you’re in the middle of a row in the middle of the stalls.  One of our group left after the second act.  It’s challenging viewing.

So, two very different productions showing the breadth of theatre in London.  The Bridge Theatre is a new venue and I’m sufficiently impressed with what I’ve seen to want to go back.  Check it out.



There are a number of posts I could write about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  How the best way of retaining your sanity is to avoid television, news websites, the radio and social media, once you’ve got the basic information.  How you need to remember how many people die of diseases and medical conditions that could be treated or avoided if more were spent on research and health and social care.  How it’s essential to keep a sense of proportion.  And how desperately tragic it is for all those affected – the victims and their families and friends; witnesses; the emergency service personnel.

But as I set off for Prague at the end of last week, it occurred to me that a trip to Czechoslovakia would have held more than a frisson of danger 30 years ago.  And now, many consider it safer than London.

I started to work out where else was considered to be off-limits during the 1980s.  Large parts of Central and South America ticked the box, as did parts of New York City.  (I remember my aunt making me promise not to take the subway when I visited in 1991 and I walked so much that I returned home an inch shorter.)  Parts of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were mainstream holiday destinations for Western Europeans in the 1980s, but I don’t recall anyone going to Romania or Hungary.

Going back a little further, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were places to steer clear of in the 1970s, but they’re a mainstay of the averagely adventurous traveller’s bucket list now.  China, the same.

Depending on the decade, various parts of Africa have been worth avoiding and some still are.  Egypt is potentially combustible, but was safe enough ten years ago.  The Middle East has been volatile for most of my lifetime, with short intervals when trips have been perfectly feasible.

Many countries and regions go through periods of comparative violence and peace.  Paris is safer now than during the Second World War and during The Terror at the end of the eighteenth century.  The UK is safer than Northern Ireland was during the Troubles of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Violence and danger ebb and flow across the globe and over time, even though we want to live in a peaceful world.

I know I’ll struggle to remember that when there’s another attack in the UK, but I will try to do so and I’ll also pray for peace.

London. 22 March 2017.


Last week was a grim time for London.  I don’t think it’s going too far to say that most Londoners felt there was bound to be an attack in our city at some point, but it’s still a shock when it happens.  It feels personal when it’s your city, when you have to go around police tape to walk home, when you have to look each way before crossing a lane of the Embankment because unmarked police cars are driving the wrong way to avoid the traffic jams.

The obvious things have been said.  Above all, there’s the mix of horror at what happened and deep sympathy for those who lost their lives, for their families and for those who were injured. There’s the observation that London has been through far worse than this and that those of us living in, and coming to, London should all carry on with our daily lives.  But these things are no less true for being obvious.

Revelation at the Royal Academy – Bill Jacklin


I paid a visit to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London recently and decided to roll the David Hockney exhibition into the trip.

The only way to guarantee you’ll get in (even on a sunny afternoon when I thought everyone else should be out of London or in the park) is to book tickets in advance.  That requires a bit of guess-work about how long you think you’re going to need in each exhibition.  I decided that, on past form, a little over an hour should cover the Summer Exhibition, but I hadn’t a clue how long the Hockney would take, so the Summer Exhibition went first.

As usual, there were a few works in the Summer Exhibition that meant it was worth the trip.  Favourite room was the architecture room, filled with works that generally didn’t make it to construction.  The drawings were exquisite and I was surprised how many of them were for sale – or, rather, had been.  Pretty much everything had been snapped up.

I had nearly half-an-hour to kick my heels before the Hockney ticket would do its thing.  I headed for the Madejski Fine Rooms, which are usually quiet – and I was blown away by the exhibition there.

I’m ashamed to say that Bill Jacklin’s work had passed me by.  What I’d been missing!  The exhibition begins with etchings and lithographs from the early part of his career.  The works depicting his father and inspired by him are particularly moving.

But my favourites by a country mile were the lithographs of skaters in New York.  He captures the movement, gestures and poses that are specific to skating – and the fun too.  There’s a flash of colour – deep red; rich orangey-yellow – that makes you wonder whether it’s a trick of the light or the imagination.  But it’s there, mingling with the otherwise monochrome palate.

There are fizzing skies, works that could only be of Venice, sharp contrasts between light and dark in works of urban conflict and clashes and much more besides.

After this, the Hockney exhibition was an anti-climax – recognisable and predictable, although he’s a most fabulous colourist.  But put it this way:  I spent longer at the Bill Jacklin exhibition.

If you can make it, do rush there – it closes on 28 August.  And the best news is that it’s free – and you don’t have to pre-book a ticket.  Otherwise, check out his website.  So, so worth it.

From London to Rio


Four years ago, I was in Colombia, having fled London to escape the 2012 Olympics.  Like many cynical Londoners, I was convinced that the city would grind to a halt, clogged with tourists and others arriving for the Games.  I ended up enthralled from across the Atlantic.

I caught glimpses of the opening ceremony on television in a bar in a former colonial town.  I caught snippets of radio news reports on the cycling – Colombia won a medal of some sort, but my Spanish didn’t stretch to working out whether it was silver or gold.  My sister sent a bevy of texts, which I picked up when I returned to places with reception.  Once I arrived in Cartagena, I even logged onto the BBC website and caught up on some of the action.

When I returned to London on the Friday before the Games finished, the streets were deserted.  Those attending the Games must have had a very warped view of London traffic and public transport; I’d never seen anything like it and rush-hour no longer existed.

It’s generally acknowledged that the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics were a success and I wish Rio well as it prepares to host the 2016 events.

It was interesting to me – observing from afar; returning just before the end of the Games; attending events on the final Saturday – how an event like the Olympic Games has the power to bring a country together and for people to rub along with something approaching camaraderie.  People revelled in sporting success, but also in the success of the Games.

I’m still don’t quite understand why sport is able to do this and why people are happy for considerable sums of money to be devoted to supporting athletes through their years of training.  At a time when students face increasing tuition fees and there are cuts in Arts funding, what is it about sport that makes it so acceptable for money to be spent on something that brings such individual glory for what might be a few seconds of performance time?

I’ll be looking out for articles on how Brazil rallies behind the Olympics and Paralympics and people’s impressions of them.  And no doubt I’ll be cheering for competitors from the UK and elsewhere – this time, from the comfort of my own home.


A Change of Art


The posters dotting the corridors and platforms of London tube stations proclaim that changes are afoot at Tate Modern.  The new Switch House opens on 17 June.  It’ll increase the exhibition space, allow for less traditional works – think installations, performance pieces and interactive works – to be shown and provide the room needed for education activities.

I know I ought to be excited about it.  A landmark building to further establish London as the international centre of contemporary art.  A place that’ll appeal to all age groups.  Art will be made even more accessible.  There’ll be more space for people to experience art in all its forms.  And yet…

I was lucky to catch the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate Modern earlier this year at one of its quiet moments.  Previous exhibitions there have been too busy to look at the art and reflect on it and it can be irritating to have people walk in front of you or ask you to move so they can take photos.  (It’s the one exhibition space I know of where the no-photography policy is observed, consistently, in the breach, while staff stand by.)

I’m aware that these views are wildly twentieth-century, but should people who want to see an exhibition, rather than attend it, find that so hard to do?  Is there something about modern and contemporary art that means being there is more important than seeing what’s there?

Last summer, I spent an afternoon with a friend at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  There were a few other people in most of the galleries; in some, we were by ourselves.  I remember the works at MIA very clearly and they made a great impression.  My friend commented that he’d thought this was what all galleries were like – until he came to London.


A Nation’s Capital


I’ve returned home after a visit to Washington DC, the first time I’ve been there since I was 14.

One thing that struck me was the number of families and school parties from across the US. I don’t think twice when I see school groups in London, but the UK is a lot smaller than the US. For a family from Texas to visit Washington, they need to travel roughly as far as from London to Kiev. For the school party I saw from California who were visiting Washington, Philadelphia and New York, it was the equivalent of travelling from London to West Africa. It’s not surprising that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime visit for many people.

But one of the other things that struck me was that the purpose of the visit and what they see is very different from a visit to London. It’s a visit of homage and touchstones, of values and memorial, of seeing at first hand the tributes that have been erected to the birth of the nation and what is stands for.

No visit would be complete without walking round the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial, seeing his statue in gleaming bronze looking out over the city, surrounded by extracts from his writings, including the Declaration of Independence. A visit will also be made to the Lincoln Memorial, with Abraham Lincoln sitting on a vast but simple chair and, again, with extracts from his speeches carved into the sides of the Memorial.

The Washington Monument is a marker for all tourists and there are more recent memorials that are well-visited too – the World War II Memorial, showing the dates 1941-45, odd to UK eyes; the Vietnam War Memorial, so simple as to bring tears to the eyes; the Korean War Memorial, where as many Koreans as Americans seemed to have left flowers and wreaths when I visited; and the Martin Luther King Memorial, with a statue situated between that of Jefferson and that of Lincoln and of the same height.

As I walked round these beautiful and moving memorials, I tried to think of any similar congregation of memorials on this scale – and designed to have such significance – in London. I drew a blank. It’s partly, I think, to do with Washington being designed as the nation’s capital and having that specific function, whereas most other capital cities have other lives. It’s also that the country and the city are, by European standards, new and they don’t come with the historic baggage of buildings that we live with.

But I also think that the American people are more used to declaring and prescribing values and what the country stands for than most English people could articulate. Americans have constitutional rights. And they pledge, on a regular basis, allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. I can’t think of anything comparable in the UK.

I’d be interested to hear any comments.