My London Loves

A sunny Summer’s Saturday in London is precious purchase when you live on a landmass oft-swept in mad maritime climate. Here’s a visual representation of one of my favourite Saturdays, from when I lived in London aeons ago:

1) There’s nothing that quite comes close to spending a couple of leisurely hours of brunch with one of my closest friends – someone whose creative spirit and sense of joie de vivre always seems to stimulate me. I strongly recommend the Huevos Rancheros at Giraffe, with fried egg, chorizo, black beans, avocado and jack cheese to line your stomach for the rest of the day.

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Huevos Rancheros for Brunch at Giraffe restaurant on South Bank, Waterloo

2) A stroll along Southbank especially when its sunny, is always a lovely treat. We had to stop by the second-hand bookstalls in front of the National Theatre, of course and spotted prints of old maps and some lovely old editions of books.

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3) One of the things I love so much about Southbank is that it is full of surprises. We were treated to a display of the Red Arrows spurting Britain’s glorious colours.

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4) The sun was feeling a bit shy that morning, so occasionally the grey vista of London’s skyline exposed itself to us. We walked to Temple station where I bade my friend farewell and decided to go exploring on my own. I wasn’t far from the Templar church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code so went in search of it. I came across the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.

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5) And found myself on Fleet Street, which was the established collective name for British broadsheets for about four hundred years until the 1980s when their headquarters began to shift to cheaper locations around London.

 

6) While taking photographs I spotted the easy-to-miss alleyway entrance to the Templar church’s courtyard

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7) Unfortunately it was closed for a private event. I’ll definitely come back again though.

 

8) I then caught a bus back past the Strand to Trafalgar square and the National gallery

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Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.

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‘Powerless structures, Fig 101’ by Elmgreen and Dragset

10) I remember the first time I walked into this particular room in the gallery and saw my first living, breathing Van Gogh painting. It was sunflowers.  Over time though, I grew to fall in love with these two little fellas below:

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Two Crabs by Vincent Van Gogh

11) And my first Monet – the Waterlilies. I couldn’t believe that I could walk into this gallery any day for free and sit in front of the actual paintings of Great Masters, meditating on how close I was to them, although separated from them in life by centuries.

12) I strongly recommend taking the free tours offered at museums.  I decided to go on the 2.30pm one where you are taken around the gallery for an hour, learning about 4-5 key paintings in the collection. Here’s a little about the National gallery –

  • Built in 1838
  • Contains only Western European paintings from the mid-13th to early 20th century – all modern paintings (ie 20th century onwards) are housed at the Tate.
  • has a collection of about 2300 paintings on display at one time.
  • Sainsbury wing (newest wing) opened in 1991 to house the early Renaissance collection

Here are a few tid-bits from the tour for your reading pleasure:

Why was Caravaggio considered so avant-garde for his time?

We looked at the example of The Supper at Emmaus, painted in 1601. Unlike paintings at the time, Caravaggio put the two disciples in this painting in tattered rags, dressing them like peasants instead of in regal robes. Jesus himself was portrayed without a beard, appearing almost effeminate. The open arms showing broad gestures and emotion were too controversial for Caravaggio’s critics and gained their dislike. But, the most surprising element of all was the artist’s ability to structure the perspective of the painting so that the viewer felt like a participant in the painting.

What’s Michaelangelo’s style doing in every other Italian painting?

Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was drawn from original designs by Michaelangelo. Art historians know this only after discovering the drawings in archives. This is how they came to realise that, at a time when Michaelangelo and Raphael were the most sought after artists in Rome, Michaelangelo was probably producing drawings for a number of great artist’s works, without getting the credit for it. There are certain giveaways, like the muscular nature of the figures and the sometimes odd perspectives of the figures and how they are laid out in the picture. For example, Lazarus in this picture, if he stood up, would be abnormally taller than anyone else in the picture because of the extended length of his legs and torso.

How did the French painter Claude (Gellee, not Monet) make it big in Rome?

Claude came to Rome, like so many other artists, to make his name. But, he first began as a chef to earn a living while he built up his career. Over time, he became known for his landscapes and seascapes. At the time, pictures of landscapes and seascapes weren’t valued above historical pictures, which required a certain amount of learning and education plus understanding of the world from the artist. It was believed that any fool could paint a landscape. Claude couldn’t paint figures well, but he kept on doing them so that he could convert his land/sea scapes into historical paintings by including figures from biblical stories and myths in them. His paintings became so prized in their time that fakes were reproduced at an incredible rate. Claude began keeping a diary of his drawings so that, if asked, he could confirm whether he had actually painted something or not. Turner and Gainsborough learned about elements of light in painting from studying Claude’s paintings.

Why does England have so many Canalettos in the country?

There were so many brilliant artists in Venice at the time that Canaletto decided to specialise in order to make a living out of his art. He painted scenes of festivals and big events in Venice to sell to a particular audience: young, English gentlemen who were completing their Grand Tour in Venice, to round up their university education.

So, there you have it, a few of the things that makes one of my favourite London weekends.

June 2012

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Damien Hirst at the Tate London

Damien Hirst was born in Bristol in 1965 and grew up in Leeds, where he began his studies in art at Jacob Kramer College. He graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1989. Hirst first came to public attention with the 1988 exhibition Freeze, which he conceived and curated while still at Goldsmiths. Staged in three installments in a disused warehouse in London’s Docklands, Freeze provided a showcase for Hirst’s own work and that of his friends and fellow students. In the 25 years since that pivotal show, Hirst has become one of the most prominent artists of his generation. His works are widely recognised and have achieved iconic status.

I decided to visit Damien Hirst’s first major survey of his work in London, at the Tate Modern. I’ve resisted his exhibitions for so long, I felt that it was finally time to give in and try to understand what he’s about.

There was a short video framing the background of his work and his artistic development, on a continuous loop. I watched this first, to give myself some context of understanding for his art. I learnt that for ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ Hirst advertised in fishing shacks and newspapers along the Great Barrier Reef for a shark, which to him represented primal fear. He treated it, mounted it in formaldehyde and presented it in a box for people to make what they would of it.

‘Lullaby’ is a selection of coloured pills arranged in row after row on shiny, metallic shelves and mounted on a wall.

There’s nothing extraordinary about his work of art except that he’s one of the few people on earth who invests a LOT of money in realising his unique concepts. Real butterfly wings arranged in patterns of colour in the shape of mandalas and stained glass windows,

a marble statue of a beautiful angel with half its body exposed to reveal flesh and bone underneath,

and then, there’s the infamous skull (For the Love of God) studded with 8,601 diamonds on display for free in a different part of the gallery.

In the documentary video about his life as an artist, Hirst says that he doesn’t make art for money, but makes money for art. In September 2008, Sotheby’s in London presented for auction 244 new works by Hirst. Rather than adhering to the traditional route of selling his work through a gallery, Hirst engaged directly with teh art market on a major scale, removing the middleman. It was an unprecedented event, conveived by Hirst as a single unified body of work, entitled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.

Hirst has two major studios – one in England the other in Mexico, contracts craftsmen and builds his business in the same way that Michaelangelo and Raphael did, in 15th century Rome. People work for him producing a plethora of artworks in factory-style production, according to his designs. When I googled ‘conceptual art’, Wikipedia told me that one of its principles is that the concept is written down in detail by an artist and can be implemented by anyone following the artist’s original design plan. Viewing Hirst’s unique art style opened another door in my mind to understanding the possibilities that artists of every ilk bring to our world. Attending Hirst’s exhibition helped me understand that his talent is not only in coming up with an incredible idea to showcase, but also in investing a huge amount of resource (financial, emotional, people) to realise the concept in real time.

Indeed, when I exited the exhibition space with my mind all a-whirl, I realised that Hirst made me believe that everything was possible, even other worlds.

 

Paul Theroux on Travel writing

I was extremely blessed to get one of the last 6 remaining tickets for a Southbank talk by Paul Theroux as part of their ‘Great Thinkers’ literature series this May. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the recent revelation to me that travel writing may just be up my alley came as a complete surprise and is leading me to pick up and explore writers I have never before been exposed to. I thought attending Paul’s talk might bring more to light about the ‘travel writing’ process. I was wrong.

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Unlike most of the people in the room who had accompanied Paul on many of his previous journeys through reading his books, I was a newbie. But also unlike most of the white, middle class, non-immigrant Londoners sat in the auditorium, I could relate to his descriptions of travel as a process of self-discovery; where one could explore not only the places they were moving to, but the ones they were escaping from. I didn’t expect to gain truths about my own life journey so far.

In one of his anecdotes, he recalled how a grown man told him that he wanted to be a travel writer and asked Paul for his top tip.
Paul said, “That’s great. Where do you live?”
“At home with my parents,” the man answered.
To which Mr. Theroux replied, “Son, you need to leave.”
Leaving home is an important event, one that you’ll keep repeating as you travel. There’s the “I’m on vacation kind of travel” with your kids, your partner, your friends and then there’s travel, where you seek to understand the culture and rhythms of a place. Where you are open enough to let yourself inadvertently absorb something of the place you visit.
Paul Theroux explained himself saying that when one stayed at home, people around you asked,
“Why do you want to be a writer?”
“How will you make any money writing?”
“What will you write?”
And the final nail in the coffin…
“Who will want to read that?”
Leaving home can allow you to give yourself the permission to be a writer and to find the space to write. Once away, you always have more perspective about home; you appreciate it better and you can always go back. Whether you’ll be welcomed back when you return is something else.

I sat in the auditorium, my heart beating quicker and thought, ‘This is my life.’ I’ve been away from the idea of ‘home’ for 20 years – and now, I’m preparing to return. I know I’ll be welcomed, but those questions – they still linger there in the same recesses I left behind. I wish it hadn’t taken me 20 years to give myself the permission to write again – indeed, to be creative. But there’s something allegorical to be said about my ‘return home’ that is actually a ‘return to myself’ or at least, the creative spirit within me.

Although the above did cause something in me to stir wildly with resonance, it wasn’t the most profound thing that he said. The most profound (and poetic) was, “Keep in mind that the way one travels, reflects the way one lives their life.” If you travel without trusting in the universe’s provision, without optimistically saying to yourself – things will get better, without expecting a beautiful discovery around every corner – that just reflects that you’re suspicious of people in your life, that you are full of despair and have no hope for the future. Exquisite nugget, I thought.

I noted a host of tips from Paul Theroux’s lips on how to travel and travel writing in general. I’ll list them below for you. Who knows you just might find a nugget to inspire you and God knows we all need inspiration!

1. What is required of travel is the lucidity that comes with being alone.
2. If you’re afraid of being alone, don’t travel (paraphrased from Chekov’s famous line quote – If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry)
3. Just as a fiction writer needs solitude to reflect and write well, a traveller (writer) needs to move around without anyone breathing down their neck asking them to look at that architecture on their right and wondering if they read the map correctly.
4. Pack only the bare necessities – a change of clothes, a bag that fits everywhere (on a bus, a train, a small plane, a crowded car), a notebook and pens.
5. When you’re travelling, you inevitably think about the past. Keep in mind that your baggage goes with you when you travel – your memory comes alive. Be prepared to deal with this. Travel doesn’t necessarily allow you to run away from yourself.
6. If you’re writing a travel book – people want to know about your honest reactions to a place. They don’t want to know how ill you were from food poisoning or how long the queues were for a bus ticket.
7. In any kind of writing, an ‘ordeal’ that someone went through really sharpens the mind. People remember ordeals. Our memory sharpens itself when it goes through its greatest fears. The prose is sharper.
8. Travel is a metaphor for living. If you don’t anticipate or enjoy travel, you don’t enjoy life.
9. You need to travel with a sense of optimism that things will always result in a discovery.
10. Good travellers are great negotiators. If you come from a large family (like Paul does) the last biscuit on the plate at tea-time is never snapped up, it’s discussed. Over-privileged people usually over-step their mark while travelling and cross sensitive boundaries because they don’t know the true art of negotiation.
11. Having a detailed map, studying it deeply, can heighten the anticipation of a trip. Stanfords in London is a fabulous place for maps of all kinds and a rare service that the city of London has to offer.
12. Flying distorts your sense of space and distance. If you want to understand a place, always travel over ground. The mystery of the world is revealed to you when you’re on the ground.
13. Spend two years in a country if you really want to get to know it.
14. When documenting travel experiences: write every day, write everything that happened every 8 to 12 hours, photocopy everything you write and mail it somewhere that it can be retrieved if you lose the original. This kind of discipline separates the writer from the non-writer.
15. Remember that when you’ve been welcomed into a country or a place, you have to return the hospitality and welcome people to your country, place, home.
16. Don’t call attention to your writing by writing in the present tense. Use the past tense so that the characters and stories come to the forefront and people are not admiring or distracted by the writing.

Paul Theroux was promoting his latest book, “The Tao of Travel” which lists 10 top things every traveller should know at the back of the book, which is a compilation of other famous travel writer’s works. He tends to have an honest, dry style of writing but the integrity of his journeying can’t be challenged. His openness to people everywhere he goes, even in conflict torn areas and his observations of humanity are touching and astute.

I’ve just finished ‘The Pillars of Hercules’ which is a lovely book of the Mediterranean countries and portrays the lesser known, non-tourist havens of Italy, Croatia, Greece and others. I was lucky enough to get my copy signed. His most famous travelogue is ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ which everyone seems to recommend if you’re interested in reading about a railway trek across Central Asia, South Asia and the Far East. And to anyone who has the chance to hear him speak in person, do so. I can guarantee that at the very least, you’ll gain insight into the life of an extremely intelligent, very passionate travel writer.