Sunday 13 December 2015



On the 4th December I went up to London by train and got the underground, the northern line, to Tottenham Court Road. I got out there and walked to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. I wanted to take one of the free gallery tours the British Museum provides. I saw that there was a free tour starting at 11.15am in Room 49, one of the Roman Galleries. The tour and accompanying talk was titled, “Gods and Goddesses in Roman Britain.” I walked to room 49 by way of the grand staircase that is located on the left of the main entrance to the British Museum. I noticed a lady standing in the far right hand corner, looking around at the people in the gallery. One gentleman was standing with her. She saw me looking and smiled. I realized that this lady was the tour guide and I introduced myself. The gentleman waiting with her said hello too. There was just the two of us on this guided tour apparently but just as she began to talk, showing us a map of Roman Britain positioned on the wall, another gentleman joined us. So it was to be three of us.

The grand staircase leading to the upper galleries and Room 49.

The lady taking the tour was genial and enthusiastic. She explained that the tour lasted half an hour and that she would be showing us a range of gods and goddesses from locations found in different parts of the Roman Provence, Britannia. She demonstrated on the map of Roman Britain where the places the Gods, she was going to talk about, were found. She pointed out Corbridge on the River Tyne in the far north,  places in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Londinium. Finally, we were going as far south as Hinton St Mary in Dorset.  The Gods and Goddesses we were going to consider mostly came from the 4 th century AD, towards the end of Roman rule in Britain, when there was upheaval in the political and social makeup of the island. It was a time when there were fewer individual Gods and one or two gods were becoming preeminent such as Minerva the goddess of water and Mithras, the god of war, but it also was a time that saw  the introduction of Christianity. It was a time of religious contrasts and change as well a political change.

A fine figure of a man. The God Mars from Fossdyke.

We started our tour with a case of small bronze votive offerings.It appears that the people of Britannia were superstitious. If they were going on a business trip, or they were unwell or perhaps they wanted good fortune, they would make an offering to their favourite god or goddess, the one they thought would be most favourable to their cause. This votive offering usually took the form of a small bronze effigy placed in the temple associated with their god. I presume prayers and chants were intoned, probably accompanied with scented tapers. The worship would include sensory effects of all kinds. Psychologically the worshiper would be now in a positive state of mind ready for their task ahead. The first effigy we looked at was a small, very detailed bronze statue of Mars, the god of war found at Fossdyke in Lincolnshire. It is a statue of a naked man looking muscular and well built.  It is a very flattering male figure to say the least. One aspect that is interesting about this statue  is that it stands on a bronze plinth  inscribed with a dedication to the God Mars and also to the Emperor. It  reads that it was dedicated by the Colasuni, Bruccius and Caratius and was made by the bronzesmith  Celatus who also donated some of the metal. Bruccius and Caratius were brothers, probably setting out on a business trip to another part of the Empire. What is  unusual is that the person who made the statue, Caratius, also provided some of the expensive bronze. Caratius was not thinking about making and selling a votive offering for profit it seems. Maybe by making a contribution to the statue, Ceratius, also wanted to praise the god Mars. He too must have wanted a favour. You wonder what his intentions might have been. As it is a particularly fine specimen of a votive offering  he has put a lot of work and effort into making it. These three men are investing much in this statuette. They want something badly. It is easy to say they are ignorant and superstitious. However, superstition is created through human imagination and sometimes partial knowledge about something and this belief can increase in power over time. In our own lives we invest meaning in objects. A collective family memory has meaning for us, a photograph of a best friend living on the other side of the world, a piece of furniture or a vase passed down through the family. Stories and memories attached to objects build up meaning and attachment within that object. So perhaps we should not deride the people of the Roman province nearly two thousand years ago because,  are we different really?

The Corbridge Lanx.

One particularly impressive artefact was the Corbridge, Lanx found in the River Tyne. It is ,an almost pristine, embossed rectangular silver dish. It portrays a scene of five gods and goddesses from ancient Greek antiquity. It is important to note that all the Roman Gods were taken from the Greeks. The Lanx shows a shrine to Apollo. What is interesting about it though is that it was made, like many of the objects we were looking at in our tour, in the 4th century AD when Christianity was becoming popular throughout the Empire. There are various speculations about its purpose. It could be that the owner wanted to show that he or she knew about the old gods even though he or she may well have taken on Christianity. It might be a teaching aid about the old gods. Unlike some of the other silver and gold wear artefacts on display in room 49, it is unscratched. It probably was not used to carry food. Other elaborate embossed plates show evidence for knives being used to cut food on their surface. The Corbridge, Lanx has no such marks. Perhaps it was merely displayed to be looked at?  Because it was made at a time of religious and political upheaval it can be read as the owner hedging their bets. He or she may have become a Christian but they were keeping the old Gods happy too. This attitude can also be seen in the mosaic floor uncovered in Dorset that we also looked at later.

The most flattering view of Senuna. Her front is mostly worn away and decayed.

Ashwell is a lovely village positioned on the edge of a chalk escarpment, fourty five miles north of the centre of London, in Hertfordshire. The springs that emerge from the chalk escarpment there are the source of the River Cam. It was here in 2002 that Alan Meek, a detectorist, came across the Ashwell hoard consisting of gold jewelry, several plaques of gold and silver and a small silver figurine of the goddess, Senuna. The plaques have her name embossed on them so the archaeologists were able to make this association of the statue and the plaques. Senuna was an unknown goddess. She seems to have been connected with the Roman Goddess Minerva because she has similar characteristics. One thing that this talk revealed is that the term Romano Britain is a good description of Roman Britain. The Romans did not replace local customs and beliefs but were very good at assimilating what the local people believed in and integrated local traditions with Roman traditions. Roman Britain had its own unique characteristics therefore, different from other parts of the Empire. Other parts of the Empire too would have had their local characteristics. However, all places within the Empire would have had recognizably  Roman characteristics too. This goddess figurine of Senuna is a good example of that process. Senuna is believed to have been a local water goddess associated with the springs. Minerva was a Roman water goddess and so the two became associated in this part of Roman Britain. The Roman Army is a good example of this adaptive process also. Roman legions throughout the Empire were recruited from local regional tribes. Even the great Roman Army became, over time, an amalgam of nations. One of the important linking traits though was that they were all Roman Citizens.

Some of the gold and silver votive offerings  with Senuna's name printed on them. It was been noticed that these were made with dies that were pressed into the thin metal leaves. Some of them were printed with the same die.

The other issue that the Ashwell hoard find highlights is the assistance of amateur metal detectorists and their undoubted modern day contribution to archaeology. Alan Meek, the gentleman who discovered the hoard was one such metal detectorist. Archaeologists try and include detectorists, with their expertise in detecting metal objects, in the exploration of archaeological sites. Dr Francis Pryor, the archaeologist who has excavated many Mesolithic sites in Britain, discusses the useful help detectorists provide, in his book, Home, a study of the, "home", in Mesolithic and subsequent ancient times. Obviously metal is a prerequisite so Francis Prior discusses the use of detectorists on Bronze Age and Iron Age sites and those following on from those periods in our history. I got the sense from his book that at first he was against using these amateurs, who, admittedly, have caused problems in the past, disturbing archaeological sites and sometimes stealing rare and important finds. However, Francis Pryor and many other archaeologists have formed friendly and productive relationships with detectorists where their expertise in metal detecting can be used constructively in a planned and structured way alongside archaeologists working in the field. Many rare finds, especially some of the fantastic metal hoards such as the one found at Ashwell would not have been discovered.

The roundel from the Hinton St Mary villa mosaic.

Finally, we arrived at a particularly impressive display in our tour of Roman gods and goddesses. It was a 4th century AD mosaic roundel from a floor discovered in a Roman Villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset. It depicts a large head of a young man gazing straight out of the mosaic, looking the onlooker squarely in the eye. It is an unwavering stare. Behind his head protrude the overlapping letters P and X. These are the Greek letters chi and rho. They stand for the early Christian symbol for Jesus Christ. It probably means that the mosaic portrait depicts Christ. But we have to be careful. There are oblique references to the Roman pagan gods too in the roundel. In the four corners, where in a pagan depiction there would be representations of the four seasons, there are instead representations of what could be the four gospel writers. Or maybe they are the four seasons amalgamated with the Christian symbolism of the central portrait? The image does strongly suggest a Christian depiction but we have always got to remember that the Romans were good at mixing and matching and playing the political game. They liked to hedge their bets. Joined to the apparently Christian roundel a short step away in the next room of the villa at Hinton St Mary is another floor that shows the pagan hero Bellepheron overcoming the triple headed Chimera. A pagan symbol for good overcoming evil, but isn’t that also a Christian belief?
The portrayal of a time when religious,political and national upheaval was going on, the 4th century AD, has its resonances today. There is  evidence for all sorts of  beliefs, customs and ideas coming together, adapting and changing the way people lived. So many things were being put into a  melting pot. We only have to look at modern times to see the same types of forces and changes going on. This gives us an attachment to the ancient people of Britain. They really were no different from us. The human condition doesn’t change does it?

Saturday 21 November 2015


We met on the steps of the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus at the exact spot where 46 years earlier Skinheads and Hippies got close.

What is life about when you are 16 years old and still at school? You are an adult but your experience is mainly  that of a child.  Emotions can fly high. Moods swing so violently you are sick inside and your brain swims and spins. You have very strong thoughts, about, everything. So many questions and no answers yet. What can you do? Probably one thing is to get more and more new experiences, of the good kind, although maybe some mistakes along the way are inevitable.

So there I was the other day, rushing from Waterloo Station to Piccadilly Circus to meet up with Morten and his students, over from Denmark for a week. A group of eleven 16 year olds who have never been out of Copenhagen before. How all this came about was when I met Morten at my brother, Michael’s sixtieth birthday party at Sostrup Slot a few weeks ago. He is the step father of Philip, my niece Clara’s husband. At the event for Michael the two of us got talking. Morten told me  he was teaching his students about youth culture and that he was bringing them to London for a few days. I told him that I have had experience of taking tours in London and I offered to take him and his students on a 1960’s Pop cultural tour. I had in mind, SOHO, the site of the Marquee Club in Wardour Street, the 2i’s café , Carnaby Street and Jimi Hendrix’s flat in Brook Street. That was our initial agenda. I added to and refined the walk later. Morten, sounded interested and a few e-mails later we had set up the walk and agreed a more detailed agenda.

On my way on the undergound to meet Morten and his students.

I got to Piccadilly Circus early and so had time for a coffee in  Starbucks in Vigo Street, just off Regents Street. That also gave me time to pop round the corner from Vigo Street into Savile Row and check that I could get a good 4G signal on my I phone outside of number 3 Savile Row. That would be important later. There are always parked cars in Savile Row which is a bit of a pain. When I arrived at Eros’s Statue a few minutes early, we had arranged  to meet at 10am, Morton and his students were already there. They were looking towards the giant,lit up, computerised advertising signs looking out over Piccadilly Circus and I approached from behind and muttered to some of the students ,”Hi I am Tony.” They exclaimed ,”Hi!” in surprise.They had obviously heard of my name and were expecting me.  I told them not to say anything and I approached Morton from behind  saying ,”Hi!!” as I did so. He spun round and gave me a hug. The students, some of them sitting on the steps leading up to Eros’s statute, smiled. They probably thought I was mad. Anyway, I made a point of shaking each by the hand, smiling and getting eye contact, whether they were sitting on the steps or standing around. I introduced myself and tried to catch their names.  I realised that their English was not good. That surprised me because I have got used to Danes being virtually fluent in English. Morten then introduced me to his  two wonderful colleagues. 

Piccadilly Circus with Eros boarded up unfortunately on a grey day.

The first thing I did was to get my black folder out and show them a picture taken by Terry Spencer in 1969 of a group of Skinheads walking past a group of Hippies sitting on the same steps that they were sitting on. The buildings in the picture were the same buildings that were behind them at that moment.  It was like looking into a mirror and seeing the past and linking now and then, two events separated by 46 years. I wonder if it did give the students a link with the past?
I started to talk, maybe too quickly. I was fired up and ready to talk about the  different youth cultural groups from the sixties. The picture was my in. Who were skinheads? So I talked about the changes to society after the second world war. I talked about working class culture and how skinheads, often a violent minority, developed. I wanted to talk about links with what freedom means then and now and how the arguments and discussions always continue. They couldn’t all understand me. Some were paying great attention. Two lads to my left were facing the other way.  If they wanted to connect with what we were doing in their own time that was fine with me. Some were better at speaking English than others and I was assured they all understood more English than perhaps they could speak. Morton and his two lovely lady colleagues interjected once in a while and translated what I had said into Danish. A few students would then ask questions in Danish which were relayed to me in English. I tried to answer and my answers were relayed back. The students seemed to require less interpretation as we went along. Maybe they got used to my voice and could pick up my English more readily. They began to ask me questions and talk to me directly. We began to have a laugh!!!! I tried not to be too intense about the themes and topics that arose. As we continued I spoke more briefly and only went into detail if I felt some were interested and wanted more.

A little dark in Great Windmill Street with the lap dancing club of the Raymonds Review Bar  ahead.

We moved on to Shaftesbury Avenue. We negotiated the crossing from the Eros statue to the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, some red double decker buses going past. Cars and cyclists darted by. We crossed at a red crossing light. One of the teachers said to me. “I have noticed English people often cross when the figure is red.” I replied,” If there are no cars coming we tend to cross. Maybe we shouldn’t,” and we both laughed. There are road works at the start of Shaftesbury Avenue so our next act was to cross again to the left hand pavement, the SOHO side of Shaftesbury Avenue .That was the side we wanted to be on anyway. I mentioned the theatres and that this was called the West End.
Within a short few steps we turned left down, Great Windmill Street. In front of us was the unlit neon sign, Raymonds Revue Bar, looking lifeless and glassy, sprawling down the side of a glum looking blackened wall. A sign on the side of the theatre read, “The Festival of Erotica.” I had warned Morten that we would be walking through SOHO on the way to some of the sites on our itinerary and told him about the sort of things to expect. He said it was no problem.

“The students all come from run down parts of Copenhagen and they are used to seeing signs for the seedy aspects of Copenhagen.”

 Danish people are more open about sex than the British. I was expecting giggles and comments but nobody even made a murmur or thought anything of it. Well they kept it to themselves if they did. Maybe they couldn’t read what it said. There was a picture of a nude woman stretched out length ways showing her naked curves but this didn’t draw any comment either. I was a little relieved. I didn’t want to discuss, erotica. We went on past the SOHO bookshop which sells pornography and the word SEX was lit up in the window in large neon letters. Why is the word SEX always lit up large and glowing red? We passed a steel shuttered and padlocked club that announced a certain type of entertainment. The exterior was grimy and stained. I am sure it looks much more inviting at night in the garishly lit thoroughfare. 

Graffitti in SOHO.

We reached Wardour Street and turned sharply right and then immediately left into Old Compton Street. On our right was the Hoi Vietnamese restaurant with its green plaque commemorating the 2i’s  Coffee Bar. I waited until all the students and their teachers had caught up.

 “This is the birthplace of British Rock and Roll,"

 I said. There was no response until one girl with a big beaming smile announced in a loud husky voice, the poor thing was suffering from a sore throat, “Rock and Roll!!” and everybody laughed. “Yes!!! I said, probably more enthusiastically than I intended. I had just got a positive reaction after all. I told them about Tommy Steele, The Vipers, Hank Marvin and Cliff Richards. An awed silence ensued.  We walked back into Wardour Street with parked cars, hurrying vans and  down at heel looking individuals going in and out of local cafes and newsagents, dry cleaners and a myriad of scruffy looking local establishments. We walked a few yards to where a large skip was situated at the side of the road, scaffolding to one side, men in hard builder’s helmets and hustle and bustle all around. I asked the students to stop and stand back to let pedestrians go by. We put our backs to the skip full of rubble and I got everybody to look up. A green plaque read,
 “Keith Moon 1946 to 1978. Legendary Rock Drummer with The Who, performed here with The Who in the 1960’s.”

This was the entrance to The Marquee in Wardour Street, the most important location in the world for Rock music. Anybody who was anybody performed here.

We were at the site of the, Marquee Club. Now for me this was one of those moments. I can be standing in a load of shit, but if a place has resonances I feel that thrill, a chill going down my spine, a sort of connection with history. It’s almost orgasmic. We were standing on a spot, in a place that is probably the most important place in Rock history, in the world. The very ground we were standing on has supported the bodily, mental and spiritual forms of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. I am going to make a list now, a little like a religious litany but these names must be said, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Yes, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Genesis…. I could go on and on. I hope you get my drift. This place, standing there amongst the detritus of builder’s rubble, is the Mecca of Rock. Morten, who is a part time musician and has his own band back in Copenhagen was in awe, as I was too. The two other teachers showed reverence and understanding and the students, well, they just shuffled and looked tired. 

"Whats The Story Morning Glory." Photographed in Berwick Street near  Wardour Street.

 We walked on to Berwick Street. We had to stop here, because I have omitted to tell you, a student was feeling sick and feint back at the statue of Eros and had remained behind until she felt better. One of the teachers had phoned her on her i-phone and the student wanted to join us so the teacher returned to Piccadilly Circus to find her and bring her to where we were, in Berwick Street. So, Berwick Street. I got out my CD cover for the OASIS album, “What’s The Story Morning Glory.” The cover of the album shows the back of a white shirted gentleman striding down a street towards another white shirted gentleman. They are probably the Gallagher brothers.It is difficult to tell. There are  shops with a block of 1960’s flats in the distance. The album cover picture is of Berwick Street. We took a few moments passing round the album cover working out where we were standing in relation to the striding gentlemen in the picture and picked out the key buildings. While we waited some went into the local shops and bought sweets and in one case, painkillers. The poor girl,was suffering from lack of sleep and had headaches. One girl sank to the floor on her bottom and sat crouched with her back against a shop front as we waited. The teacher I stood with said to her in English, “You just want to go back to the hotel and put on make up to make yourself look good, don’t you?” The teacher turned to me and said that the girls like to spend time making themselves up. I looked at the crouching girl and said to her, “but you look lovely anyway.” At first she smiled back. Then it seemed to sink in what I had said,”Oh thank you.” She beamed even more. Then after a pause,” Thank you very much,” in an even more animated voice than at first and now she was really beaming and smiling at what I had said.    As we continued our walk Morten informed me that these teenagers all came from the rougher areas of Copenhagen and had all been school refusers. This was a chance to enable them to get exams so they could choose courses to do at further education colleges.  They were polite to me the whole day and at times they warmed to the walk and were appreciative and many were  interested in what we were seeing. They were moody and there were some arguments between them but they did what they were told. They were just normal teenagers. I have no idea what lives these students live. I have no idea what has happened to them in the past. I thought they were amazing though  and full of potential.

Carnaby Street.

From Berwick Street we walked on to Carnaby Street. The Christmas lights were hanging across the street and the arched Carnaby Street signs at both ends of the thoroughfare were festooned with Christmas lights and garlands. The street was looking festive. The shops are glossy and expensive looking. I pointed out the Dr Martins and Ben Sherman shops as being shops that might have been there in the  sixties. We recalled the Skinheads in the picture I had shown them and I pointed out they were all  wearing Dr Martins. I pointed out that I was actually wearing a pair of Dr Martins myself but it didn’t seem to get much of a reaction. A couple of the girls said that they liked Dr Martin’s boots. I am not sure they actually have any though. The boots are excessively expensive. I showed them a picture of an OZ magazine from the era. I recalled how I had seen, in the early 70’s, OZ magazines being sold in Carnaby Street. I mentioned how it was a subversive publication and that it challenged the norms of society and in some cases it advocated illegal practices and hence the editors Richard Neville, Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp ended up in prison. A quick mention of Charlie Hebdo, what is blasphemy and how our freedoms, especially of speech are often challenged. Morten assured me that what I was talking about might not mean much at the moment to them but all these things they could return to in the classroom. The students, would, after having time to reflect, be able to come back to all these subjects. I was doing my best to mention topics that might be of interest.

Number 3 Savile Row, the Apple Corp building.

Our next stop was Savile Row. We stood outside of number 3 Savile Row. I said,”Look up at the roof.” We all did. “That is where the Beetles , on the 30th January 1969, held a roof top concert that featured in a film called, Let It Be. “And so we all looked and , having 4G on my i-phone and also having previously checked I could get a signal from this spot, I played a Vimeo recording of the concert. We all stood round and listened to the Beetles as they appeared on that roof top and got themselves ready to play. We listed to, a rendition of Get Back and another of, Don’t Let me Down. I and one of the teachers started to dance to the music. One or two of the students nervously giggled and attempted to dance and then gave up. I told them a little of the Beetles history connected to the building. I mentioned the extra £2 million the Beetles had earned at the time  that would have gone to the taxman but instead was used to purchase the building which became, “Apple Corp.” The students didn’t get the innuendo sadly.  That title is definitely a John Lennon bit of humour I thought. Having said that, he probably didn’t think of it himself. I wonder if anybody knows who decided on the name?

The basement of number 3 Savile Row was turned into a recording studio.

So, on down Savile Row, marvelling at the smart suits, shoes and hats in the tailors windows. Wealth and quality, the very texture and weight of the cloth used to make the suits infects the feeling of Savile Row.  There were a few murmurs from the teachers about the smart suits as we wended our way. One lad was looking particularly grumpy and disaffected. It was difficult to get eye contact. I touched his arm and immediately got eye contact. I asked him, “Are you Ok?” He answered, “Yes, I am OK.” He certainly didn’t look it. As I touched his arm to get his attention the thought did occur to me that my gesture might go two ways. We walked on until we got to the back of St Georges Church, Hanover Square. I began to search my memory  for any Dickens connections here. It looked ancient and grimy but it had an elegant classical Greek Style with a pillared portico. A typical Wren 17th century style. It occurred to me that it was the sort of church where Dickens might have written about a starving pauper begging on the steps or where, in one of his novels, some child bride was married. Must check Dickens out for St Georges,Hanover Square.

23 Brook Street where Jimi Hendrix lived with his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham. The Jimmy Hendrix , George Frederik Handel Museum is undergoing renovation and a revamp at the moment.

We crossed the road by the corner of St George Street and Brook Street. Some scaffolding at the front of a building a little way down Brook Street showed me where the flat Jimi Hendrix lived in was located. Unfortunately the Georgian terrace is being renovated and the whole front of the building is covered in scaffolding at the moment. The builders had been kind enough though to display the London County Council Blue plaque with Hendrix’s name on the front of the scaffolding. My i-phone came in handy again and I played,”Hey Joe,” and some of the students huddled round to watch the video clip on my phone. Morton and I mentioned, Kathy Etchingham his girlfriend and something about Monterey and Woodstock and then moved on quickly. Everybody was getting tired now. I could sense they had had enough. The day before they had walked around London all day and here I was getting them to walk again.
One last place and then they could shop to their hearts content in Oxford Street. We made for the 100 Club at the top of Oxford Street, The British Museum end. After a quick discussion about The Who, The Stones and of course The Sex Pistols who performed at the 100 Club on a number of occasions, I stopped.

The 100 Club in Oxford Street where the Sex Pistols and many other bands have performed.

It was, it seemed, time to say goodbye. I had completed my walk with them. They  had put up with me admirably. Each one came and shook my hand and said thank you and smiled. I was quite touched. Maybe I had connected with them after all? Suddenly one or two of the quiet ones started to ask questions. One girl very animatedly started asking about Amy Winehouse. How did she get famous? What do you do to get famous? She had obviously been mulling things over. I tried to answer as best I could. I told her as far as I knew Amy Winehouse had started singing in pubs in Camden. She had a great talent and was discovered by record producers. I emphasised that you need talent. I asked the girl if she sang. She went coy and sounded shocked. Oh no, she couldn’t sing. A big lad, who had been quiet the whole day, then came up to me and asked which football team I supported. I told him, Southampton. He knew all about the position the Saints are now in the league and then proceeded to tell me everything he knew about London teams which was quite considerable. I was taken aback.

After this the students disappeared off down Oxford Street to do some shopping. Primark, was a target for some. Morten and his two colleagues invited me to lunch and we had a lovely Italian meal just off Oxford Street at a nearby Bella Pasta.

The WHO at The Marquee in 1967.

Analysing my contribution to the day, I must admit, it is difficult talking to a group of fourteen people on the crowded, busy streets of London. I am not sure how more professional guides do it. It is a skill I need to improve.  I think I talked to each and everyone of them. I tried to relate to everybody.I am not sure the topics interested everyone all the time. But as Morten said,  there were many subjects he could return to with them later.

I do hope this group of teenagers have something to think about in the future. Now,  they probably feel that they had to put up with me. I think all teenagers feel that life happens to them. I am sure they don't think that they are in control. There are a number of themes they can get to grips with, freedom of speech, fashions, the cultural meaning of music, youth cults, such as skinheads and hippies, religion, art and politics. However, all these subjects, although important and they need to think about them, are overshadowed by what is most important. They now have new experiences such as being in a different country. On this trip they have had to get on with each other. They have shown discipline, keeping to a timetable of events. They have had to combat their own feelings. They have seen a different world from that which they are used to. These kids, because they still are kids, need to be noticed, be made to feel important, listened to, smiled at and shown that what they think and have to say has value. I hope they have great ambitions. I hope each one of them finds something they really want to do.

Thursday 5 November 2015

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald (A REVIEW)

Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is an affiliated research scholar at Cambridge University working in the department of History and Philosophy of Science. Until 2007 she had been a research fellow at Jesus College Cambridge. She has published three books, Shalers Fish, in 2001, Falcon, in 2006 and H is for Hawk, in 2014 for which she won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction and became a Sunday Times best seller.

and I’m just standing there. I can’t say a word,”cause everything’s just gone. I’ve got nothing absolutely nothing.” (Mike Skinner, The Streets, 2004)

This is a line from a song written by Mike Skinner of The Streets called “Dry Your Eyes. “It is written in the first person,a self-confessional style. The reader is brought into immediate emotional contact with the writer. Helen Macdonald uses this style to great effect in H is for Hawk. The lines written by Mike Skinner above could almost have come straight from Helen Macdonald’s book. She expresses those very thoughts and emotions when she thinks she has lost, Mabel, her Goshawk, on a number of occasions. She feels those emotions after her fathers death. Macdonald is a complex person. We all are, I know, but she conveys that complexity in depth in her book.

The first person style seems to be the  thing of the moment. It is the style of all autobiographies past and present of course but the first person autobiographical style has been taken up by many of our modern modes of communication and entertainment. Instagram , Twitter and Facebook are relatively new ways of creating a first person contact with an  audience of so called, "Friends."  I am not saying Macdonald is taking part in this alternative reality. She is publishing her thoughts and ideas in a traditional and tried format, the book. She is not baring her soul on a whim on Instagram or Facebook. I have just read A Shepherds Life by James Rebanks, who incidentally was Oxbridge educated too but at Oxford in his case.  His book began as a series of Twitter messages. His twitter account is still extant. These things should not overwhelm the person creating them. Helen Macdonald has enough to overwhelm her in H is For Hawk without the complexities caused by social media. 

A goshawk.

H is for Hawk, is about Helen MacDonald’s self-analysis and psychological and emotional recovery from the death of her father. It is also about combating  her own self. It is a sort of growing and maturing process. She does this through a number of ways.

The training and learning process needed and personal skill of being an austringer is one way that she addresses her psychological problems. She trains, a goshawk, she names Mabel. This  is her primary focus. The process of training Mabel is closely connected  with coping or not coping with the bereavement of her much loved father. It is a flawed coping mechanism in many ways. She also has a difficult and tortuous relationship with the long dead T H White; he died in 1964 and Macdonald was born in 1970. He is the famous author of series of stories, The Once and Future King. Macdonald’s interest in White is allied somewhat to Whites mental journey in writing his fiction, but is mostly connected to a book White wrote about training a hawk he called GOS. In this book, which he named, Gos,after his goshawk, he relates his progress in  training the bird and it is this process that Helen Macdonald argues with, challenges and has very strong emotional reactions to.

T H White
Macdonald has a discourse with her past and her present. She is caught up in the struggle created by her emotional responses and memories of her dead father and the dead White. They appear to be the only three dimensional characters in the book. Any friends, including her mother, and  a few Hawking friends, are one dimensional, almost ghosts, hardly there. She is close to Stuart and his wife who live in a cottage and breed and fly hawks. We get a small sense of her attachment and love for them. Her friends seem to be varied, from different social strata. She feels more at home with a truck driver than an academic. Macdonald hones in on warmth of personality and for want of another word, love. The connection is always hawks though. I worried about Macdonald as the book unfolded. She was so single minded, so mentally focussed on the hawk that the real world disappeared for her. She makes you believe that she is beginning to think, feel and actually be a hawk herself. It was almost a relief at one point to know that she herself realised this and went to a doctor for depression and received medication. She was breaks down in front of the readers eyes. At the end of the book she has a healthy distance from Mabel. 

I found it interesting to hear Macdonalds account of when she heard that her father had died. Her mother phoned her. When her mother got the words out Macdonald described her feelings as like being hit hard. It was a physical shock as much as an emotional shock. She had no control over it. I remember, when I was a student in my 20’s getting a phone call from my mother telling me my much loved grandmother had died. I too felt that physical punch. My brain was awash, I couldn’t think straight and I had to lie down. My whole body shook. Part of the process that happens during the book is Macdonald’s recovery from that emotional and physical shock of hearing that her father was dead. She couldn’t choose to control it. The shock controlled her and took its own time. The process involving her father was about memories, how her father had taken her bird watching, how he had shown interest in what she was interested in. She describes how he had taken a part in shaping her as a human being. What she is now is part due to her father.

This awareness of self and the effect our inner emotional and psychological selves can have on our exterior lives and relationships is one of the key elements of this book. She takes strong umbridge with T H White in the training of his hawk,Gos. Macdonald tells us that White is a sado masochist. There is a lot of White’s autobiography in this book. He had been beaten often as a school boy at the great public school of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Where the older boys had beaten him ritualistically as a young boy, as he became one of the older boys he beat the younger ones. He went on to be a teacher at Stowe and so the process continued with him. Macdonald sees signs of Whites suppressed sado erotic and masochistic traits in his training of his hawk. She thinks that White is mostly wrong. aWhite loses Gos who escapes. He is desolate and defeated. However, for all Macdonalds obvious dislike of White, she has a strong fatalistic attachment to him. It almost feels that she is joined to him in his struggles. She is always comparing her struggles with Mabel to White's struggles with Gos. Macdonald is far from perfect herself and often comes across as strange and damaged as White does.

Macdonald bought her goshawk from a breeder in Northern Ireland. She had to meet her hawk on the quayside of some Scottish harbour. The whole description of her getting the goshawk has a sense of mystery and subterfuge. It is as though some sort of illegal exchange is going on. I think this is heightened by Macdonalds admiration and feeling of awe for the hawk. Hawks have a dark sinister aspect to them. We are reminded throughout the book that hawks mean death. They are killing machines. MacDonald ttells us about the imagery that hawks have been associated with over the centuries. The Nazis saw the goshawk as a symbol for their air force. In fact Goring had been an austringer himself. Cambridge where she lives is in the middle of the Fens. It is low lying marshy land all around and the wind blows in off The North Sea. There are USAF airbases with planes carrying nuclear warheads stationed in East Anglia. There are moments when she describes air force planes roaring overhead as she is flying Mabel on the Fens. The connection between killing machines, plane and hawk, is not lost. To Macdonald, hawks are hawks. They are wild animals. They do not have human thoughts and motivations. They do what hawks do and should not be connected to human actions for human gratification.

One thing that is clear, Macdonald is an obsessive. She has total focus on what she is doing. She shows this throughout the book in the exactness of her training of Mabel. She is so intense that every nerve ending, every sense is stretched to the limit with her. She even begins to see the world as a hawk would see it or rather as she imagines a hawk would see it. She is thinking in unison with Mabel. Or she thinks she is. When things don’t go right, Macdonald is distraught. She becomes hyper sensitive to every nuance. Does this make her a genius? Does this make her brilliant?  At one stage Macdonald ends her fellowship at St Johns and at the same time has to move from her rented accommodation, so she is virtually jobless and homeless. What makes each one of us great or brilliant in our own way is not what society dictates, education, job, house, family.  Macdonald almost spurns these. There is an awareness that she does care about these things, especially about not having a job or roof over her head but she adamantly pursues what she loves for no financial gain or approval from society. I have mentioned already that her friends are those she loves and feels comfortable with not those who can benefit her in other ways or have high positions. I admire her for this. She reminds me of James Rebanks, The Shepherd. He was advised at school to leave farming and get another job because farming was seen as servile and low. He baulked at this suggestion. He could see the nobility and intelligence needed and the life long and generational adherence to a landscape and way of life. That was important to him. I get the same sense of what is of true value from Helen Macdonald too.

Towards the end of the book there is a chapter where she and her mother are   spending Christmas with friends in Southern Maine. The chapter is called New World.  The New World being America is obvious, but at this point Macdonald is emerging from her depressions and introversions into the,”new world,” of sanity and normality. She is much more relaxed and the people around her, including her mother, can be seen three dimensionaly at last. They are living and breathing people once again. She also discusses the land use laws in Maine and compares them to the more stringent rules in Britain. Macdonald, going against many liberal minded people, thinks hunting is a good thing. To her it is about the preditor, prey situation of a balanced habitat. She feels a bond and strong understating between hunter and hunted.

The book cover for, "H is for Hawk," by Helen Macdonald.

There is another chapter entitled, Winter Histories. At one point she flys Mabel in local, familiar fields around Cambridge. These are fields that Mabel knows well. Macdonald recalls where Mabel caught a rabbit under a hedge. She remembers how Mabel got entangled in the branches of a tree nearby. She watches Mabel visit in a swooping flight, various places where she had caught and killed prey in the past; revisiting, remembering, relating to her environment and habitat.  When we live and experience a place over time we form a  relationship of memories, good and bad with it. I know the area I live in well. It has memories built up over years. It is part of me and I am part of it.

One of the major themes of this book is love. Macdonald has love for friends. The love for her father comes across strongly. Her love for Mabel is a major theme. Throughout the book you can see how a loving relationship forms in the way she relates to Mabel. Macdonald gives her whole self to Mabel. At one point, I thought will she ever be able to have a relationship in this way with a human? But Macdonald does mention her close human relationships; there are hints and mentions. 

Friday 30 October 2015

W is for Walk (after Helen Macdonald’s book. H is for Hawk.)

I went for a walk recently  from my front door in Motspur Park into the centre of London. Ever since we returned from the Coast to Coast Walk, from St Bees on the Cumbrian Coast across England to Robin Hoods Bay on the Yorkshire Coast I have had the thought, almost a nagging request, at the back of my mind, to go for a walk again. Not just to the end of the road or round to Tescos to shop for food, but a long walk. Today I walked into London. That is about eighteen miles. I know the route I took was eighteen miles because the health app on my i-phone told me so. I have it set to miles. What has got me so interested in walking? It is not actually a conscious thing. I have tried to reason it and work out why walking is so important in a logical analytical way. I can reason it, enumerating fitness and health at the top of the list but it is more than that. I have a deep gut feeling about it. It’s something deep inside my brain that needs me to walk. So what is this walking? It is simply placing one foot in front of the other I know and getting i a forward motion going. It’s a fluid motion. An unconscious motion. Its about moving forward rhythmically. Nobody gives the actual process of physically walking much attention. I flowed along using an easy stride. There was some urgency to move so I didn’t dawdle. I wasn’t walking aimlessly. I gave myself the target of reaching Trafalgar Square. The speed I walked, about three to four miles an hour, I have discovered, is an optimum pace. Walking is a way of communing with the world. I hear and see things and they enter my brain and thoughts, ideas and imagination. There is something psychologically deep seated in our psyche making it necessary to move and change. We are not creatures designed for staying still. “Time and Tide wait for no man,” as the saying goes. I have got this idea, which keeps coming into my head that walking is a metaphor for life, for living. You are born, you grow and move about, love, experience things, some hard and painful and some joyous and love filled and then one day it stops because you die.  Taking a walk is a small illustration of life. Its purpose is the act of walking and experiencing. The whole of your life is just a longer walk with many more experiences along the way. I feel that is what we are made for. Our bodies are made to move and do things. If we stop moving we become unhealthy. If we stop moving both physically and mentally we ossify and stop living.

Some road works in Worple Road

London is an amazing place. It is a gigantic living organism. People are the living cells of the body. I walked along Worple Road towards Wimbledon High Street, People were rushing by striding towards bus stops or further towards Wimbledon Station. A woman strode out of her flat entrance purposefully past me, her wet hair straggly about her face straight out of the shower apparently. A young suited man, a briefcase gripped knuckle white in his hand, powerwalked on by. I could sense the early morning, going to work, tension. Strange contrasts occur everywhere in London. As I walked out of Wimbledon Village towards the A3 and the Putney, Wandsworth roundabout I had Wimbledon Common on my left and some large expensive houses on my right. On my right side I had bricks and mortar with neat structured gardens and on my left I had a whole variety of trees, shrubs, birds and wildlife, an untouched and untamed expanse. There is a wild pond at the side of the road, on the common side. I saw a heron standing perfectly still in amongst some tall reeds contemplating with the utmost patience one particular spot on the surface of the pond. It was waiting. There is a bus stop near the pond and suddenly a red London transport double decker bus roared to a standstill next to the pond and a passenger got off. The heron did not move. My mind was split. Two very different sensations were arriving in my brain simultaneously. A strange and slightly disquieting contrast of built order, a transport system and untamed nature. Bringing diverse things together can be very creative. Unexpected contrasts can create new ideas. This is one of the many things London enables, a coming together of unexpected contrasts which create a climate for new ideas. Maybe this is why London, as well as all its other aspects, is such an amazing, creative hub.

As I arrived at the corner of Wimbledon Common where it meets the Putney Roundabout there is a tunnel system for pedestrians and cyclists which take you underneath this busy junction of roads.
This pathway system is unobtrusive. In its construction large smoothly shaped mounds of earth, like small hills are piled up on the land in the middle of the roundabout and at various other places in this complex maze. They are smoothly grassed and have small copses of silver birch and rowen populating them.  I say complex because the pathways cross each other through tunnels taking you to the A3 and West Hill which continues into Wandsworth, to the A219 Tibbetts Ride leading to Putney and Wimbledon Parkside, which I had just walked along, or along the A3 back towards Kingston Vale and Kingston upon Thames. The clearly displayed blue information signs with their simple letter design make it easy to follow your intended route and the, brutalist, simplicity of the curving, sinuous, concrete paths and pillared tunnels lead you on your way with the minimum of fuss. Everything about brutalist architecture from the late 1960’s to the late 1970s is minimal. Brutalist architecture excites me. There is no flamboyance, or intricate detail to it. It is simple and straightforward. It has a new fresh feel about it even today. It is built strongly with reinforced concrete. It uses basic geometric shapes, squares, rectangles, cubes, cuboids and cylinders. I remember visiting my brother Michael at Sussex University in the 70’s when he was a student there. Sussex had been built in the 60’s and designed by Sir Basil Spence. It felt modern. It felt cutting edge and as such gave me and everybody else an uplifting feel. The feeling of going forward into the future, is the feeling a university should instil in its students. I think the term, brutalism, has done this form of architecture by the likes of Erno Goldfinger, Richard Seifert and Basil Spence a disservice. The word derives from the French word for raw, brut. The French called the material used,”beton brut,” (raw concrete). An English art critic, Reyner Banham, used the word brut, and turned it into brutalism, which obviously gives it the idea of being brutal in a different sense. The term has given this type of architecture a bad press. The many high story blocks of flats, that were not socially compatible places to live, it turned out, created in the brutalist style, probably, did not help its reputation either.

The simple clean lined design that is called Brutalist. The underpass at Putney Roundabout.

I took my camera with me on this walk, thinking I would use it to take pictures of things I could write about in this essay. However, in the end I took, maybe, two or three pictures with it. I was much more interested in looking, listening and just walking along. I used my i-phone camera on occasions when the urge became overwhelming. Marilyn has told me off for taking pictures when we have been out together. She informed me in the past, “You are not with us.” I didn’t know what she meant. Perhaps it was difficult to admit it. I knew that by taking pictures, or so many of them, I was making myself detached. I was a pace or two behind, always. When you go out with people the point is to be with each other and relate to each other and experience things together. Is it really important to photograph what you see?  I have had mixed feelings about taking photographs for some time. We live in an age when people are seemingly always taking selfies, photographs of their food, continually recording what they see everywhere. What is the purpose? Recently I have read Helen MacDonald’s intense, personal account in, ”H is for Hawk,” She writes about her father, who had died and who was a photojournalist.
 Putting a lens between himself and the world was a defence against more than physical danger: it shielded him from other things he had to photograph: awful things, tragic things, accidents, train crashes, the aftermath of city bombs. He’d worried that this survival strategy had become a habit. “I see the world through a lens,” he said once, a little sadly, as if the camera was always there, stopping him getting involved, something between him and the life that other people had.
This is exactly how I have become to feel about using a camera. So on this walk I took very few pictures.

My camera. The cause of controversy.

There are bits of history that came to mind everywhere as I walked along. Every inch of this country has layers of history going far back into the depths of time. At the bottom of Putney High Street is St Mary’s church on the right, next to the bridge and positioned on the river bank. This church has a very important role in our present constitution. In the summer of 1647 after the First Civil war, General Cromwell and General Ireton had tried to negotiate with the King. This had lost them support amongst military and civilian radical thinkers. In October five cavalry regiments nominated, “New Agents,” to represent their views. They endorsed the proposals put down in the Levellers document, “The Agreement of the People.” The Levellers wanted a new constitution based on manhood suffrage, one man, one vote. They also wanted all authority invested in Parliament and not the King or the House of Lords. The Grandees, Cromwell, and Ireton invited the New Agents and their civilian supporters, the Levellers to a debate in front of the General Council of the Army. The debates began on 28th October 1647 and were held in St Marys Church Putney. They were chaired by Oliver Cromwell. The Levellers, regarded the right to vote as the right of all freeborn Englishmen. Cromwell and Ireton regarded the idea of manhood suffrage as a recipe for anarchy. They wanted only property owners to have the vote. After several days of heated debate the Levellers agreed that servants and alms takers should be exempt. The Grandees decided that soldiers who had fought for Parliament should be allowed the vote. Cromwell and Ireton were alarmed at the extremism of The Levellers and suspended the army council. The Agitators were ordered back to their regiments. A new council was formed of only officers. They created a set of new proposals that were not acceptable by the radicals. A near mutiny took place. Meanwhile Charles1st had escaped from Hampton Court and a second Civil War loomed. The army closed ranks. The representation of rank and file soldiers on the Army Council was dropped and things continued without reform. Inside the church there is a quote from, Colonel Rainsborough, who was the highest ranking soldier who supported the beliefs of the ordinary soldier during the Putney Debates.
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.”
The Levellers and those who agreed with their beliefs wanted the sort of democracy we have today. Oliver Cromwell at the time, thought that this would amount to anarchy and a fragmented state.
There I was at the bottom of Putney High Street walking past the very spot that this drama, unfolded. The ideas expressed at the Putney Debates never went away and resurfaced and resurfaced for hundreds of years afterwards. I walked over the very ground the representatives of the Levellers, The New Model Army and Oliver Cromwell trod. That gave me a thrill.  It was not ghosts but it was the past that I walked with.

St Mary's Church, Putney. The scene of The Putney Debates.

Normally when I drive into London I go via Wandsworth. I decided to walk over Putney Bridge because I don’t know that route nearly so well. I wanted to experience new places.
Once over Putney Bridge, which crosses that piece of the Thames, although at low tide it is more mud banks than river, where the Oxford verses Cambridge Boat Race starts, on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April, I turned right into The New Kings Road. Most of the buildings and houses are late Victorian or Edwardian and have a dull grey brick look with black slated roofs. One remnant of an earlier Victorian past is the solitary brick beehive that is all that remains of the Fulham Pottery works. South London rivalled, “The Five Towns, “on the northern border of Shropshire for its pottery production. The Thames River has many clay deposits along its banks an ideal resource for pottery. The London Basin is mostly clay.

An original pottery kiln in Fulham.

I walked along the New Kings Road reading street names and places I have heard of and probably driven past in a blur in the past not taking any notice of them and having time to enjoy them. This is what walking does. It gives you time and space to have a good look, take things in, and absorb your surroundings.

I passed by Parsons Green. I had a feint recognition of the name before. Was it famous for something? I found a board explaining its history. It is not a place of fame. It is merely a piece of common land that has survived from the Middle Ages as land belonging to the local community for their use. It probably had the sheep of villains munching on its verdant surface long ago. It is set amongst Victorian terraces and Victorian Villas. It a lovely leafy bit of Fulham and Chelsea that people have enjoyed for centuries. The day I walked past people were walking their dogs on it. One large Victorian house, on the New Kings Road side of the green, caught my attention. I took a photograph of it on my i-phone. Unfortunately the name of the house, carved in stone over the front door, is partly obscured by some foliage in the picture and memory as it is does not help.  I think it is called, Romona House. The letter R is hidden behind a leaf in my photograph. What seemed special about it was the size and height of its windows. The rooms inside, I could see, were flooded with light. The large front window of one room at the top of the house enabled me to see up to the ceiling of the room but there was no ceiling just large glass panels forming the ceiling and roof above. It looked unusually well lit. Parsons Green is not far from the start of The Kings Road and Chelsea where many artists, especially in Victorian times lived. Some of the Pre-Raphaelites lived in Cheyne Walk beside the Thames at Chelsea. I could only think that perhaps this was a Victorian artist’s house with that room in the roof that appeared full of light. It would have made a great studio. It faced north so perhaps the artist may have been interested in a subdued even grey lighting in the winter and autumn. On a clear summers day it would have been a vivid blue light but not the blinding white light of direct sunlight coming from the south.

Romona House. Possibly a Victorian  artists studio at Parsons Green.

I walked on. My legs were feeling good. However, I had blisters on my left heel. They were sore. This brought a wry smile to my face. All through the Coast to Coast Walk with Clive and Michael, the three of us were aware of getting injuries both serious and minor such as blisters. I think Clive got a sore heel at one stage but the application of blister plasters soon solved that. We wore walking boots which had spent time breaking in and using often before we started the walk. I think we had virtually sorted out any boot problems before we began The Coast to Coast. However, on my walk to the centre of London I decided that It seemed a little silly to wear my walking boots. I wear Dr Martins which are tough shoes and designed for urban walking. I thought I would be fine, especially as I have worn them every day for the last year. But no, I got blisters. I stopped at a Boots the Chemists and bought some blister plasters which I applied to the red raw heel but it was too late. The damage had been done. The plasters alleviated the pain but it still felt uncomfortable. I merely continued walking and tried to forget the discomfort.

Bishop's Stores in The New Kings Road.

 The part of the New Kings Road just before it becomes The Kings Road has many shops. There was a local newsagents, BISHOP’S STORES, its name emblazoned across a red and white Coca Cola swoosh that went from one side of the shop to the other. It looked particularly scruffy and untidy. The crowded mess of advertisements stuck across its frontage, shouted out to the passing world. Walls Ice Cream, Hermes delivery vans, Lotto and Lottery tickets sold, grocery’s  and off licence alcohol, posters for LOVE magazine all crowded across it. The patchwork effect of contrasting colours, fonts and photographs make it look like a glorified side of a fridge covered in fridge magnets and reminders.  Maybe we have grown used to being bombarded by pictures and slogans in our society? It has become a familiar assault on our senses which we don’t take notice of but would feel something was missing if it wasn’t there. In this part of the New Kings Road, Bishop’s Stores was in the minority. Most of the shops, set within Victorian Shop shells, were specialist shops. There were lighting emporia displaying glittering chandeliers. There were specialist shoe shops with shoes displayed like sculptural works of art. Shops for hats, gowns, and bespoke tailors proliferated. Hand crafted furniture pieces were displayed in one shop. The style and moneyed wealth of the Kings Road area was near at hand. Chelsea beckoned. The blisters on my left heal numbed.

A luxury bathroom shop in The New Kings Road.

As I walked along looking at buildings and gardens and passing people the thought occurred to me, how is it actually possible to walk along a street with people in front, approaching you, walking past you, you walking past people, somebody crossing in front and various other random and unexpected movements  without having a collision? We don’t think about it. It a appears to be a subconscious skill to avoid, step aside speed up slow down and perform whatever swerve and change of direction that is needed to negotiate all these human obstacles. I suppose we are actually aware of what we are doing but it takes minimal thought. There must be a hierarchy of problem solving. We do some things with no thought at all. Breathing for instance. We do other things such as walking at a very low level of consciousness. We buy a newspaper at a more sophisticated level of awareness and we rea d that newspaper and think about the ideas at a much more aware and sophisticated level still. There must be a hierarchy of thinking skills. Walking along a street includes a mixture of these different levels of thinking abilities.

One thing I always look out for or rather they grab my attention are the blue plaques. The following is a quotation from the English Heritage website. It tells us something about blue plaques.
 “By showing us where famous people have lived and worked, blue plaques celebrate the architecture of London’s streets and the diversity and the achievements of its past residents. London’s blue plaques scheme founded in 1866, is believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world. The iconic Blue Plaque design has been the subject of regular experimentation over the years. Plaques have been made of bronze, stone and lead, in square, round and rectangular forms, and have been finished in shades of brown, sage, terracotta and – of course – blue. The earliest plaques, commissioned by the Society of Arts (in 1886), were handmade by the pottery firm Minton, Hollins & Co. The inlaid or encaustic roundel had a distinctive border pattern with the letters of the name of the Society of Arts worked into the decorative design. Some were set into a painted wooden mount.
English Heritage plaques (today) are made by highly skilled artisan craftspeople, Frank and Sue Ashworth of London Plaques who have been creating them for the charity since 1984. The surface is slightly domed to encourage self-cleaning, and the lettering, because it is handpiped, is slightly raised. As long as the plaques are protected during any building works, they will last for as long as the building they are attached to.”

Number 9 Paultons Square just off The Kings Road.

On my walk, legs striding forward, my eyes, ears and other senses alert to the environment about me, ( a little like Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk) I came across a number of blue plaques. The names I saw and read, the houses where they lived, the thresholds they crossed and pavements they must have trod, where I was treading myself, gave me a thrill.
The first I noticed was that of Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) who was a naturalist and writer, famous for his book, “Ring of Bright Water.” He lived at number 9 Paultons Square just off the Kings Road. I could see his blue plaque standing out from the white stuccoed surface of his house from a distance. It was just another blue roundel until I approached it and discovered who it commemorated. Maxwell lived in Paultons Square from 1961 to 1965.
A walk is full of unexpected occurrences. The blue plaques were another pleasant series of unexpected discoveries and memories. At the sites of the blue plaques, the locations gave me time to pause in my walk and read about and remember what I knew of the people. I didn’t have to go far for the next blue plaque. It was on the opposite side of Paultons Square to that of Gavin Maxwell’s home. Jean Rhys (1890-1979) lived at flat 22 Paultons Square from 1936 – 1938. She hadn’t published The Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jayne Eyre by then. Even so the name Jean Rhys conjured up thoughts of the mentally deranged creole, Antoinette/Bertha, Mrs Rochester. A disturbing consideration, standing in the street and looking up at the blue plaque high on the brick wall under the window of the flat Rhys lived in. 

Jean Rhys lived here in Paultons Square.

The next blue plaque I came across was very intriguing. Flat 22B Ebury Street, Belgravia was the home of Ian Flemming. The entrance lobby to the various flats is open to the street. Four doors lettered E, F, G, and H are presented to you. It appears that Fleming’s flat was either E or F because they are on the side of the building the blue plaque has been placed, but which one? It’s enough to throw any self-respecting Russian Spy off the scent. The blue plaques in London show you where the famous and infamous lived/. People who have made their mark on the world and usually, as with the cases I have just mentioned, have continued to be important to us all.

Ian Fleming lived here in Ebury Street.

Onwards I walked. I must admit by the time I got to the top of The Kings Road in Sloane Square I was getting tired. I didn’t really feel the blister on my heel anymore or rather it had become bearable. There, in Sloane Square is The Royal Court. It’s an ordinary looking theatre from the outside. It was opened on 24 September 1888 as the New Court Theatre. Designed by Walter Emden and Bertie Crewe it is constructed of fine red brick, moulded brick, and a stone facade in free Italianate style. Originally the theatre had a capacity of 841 in the stalls, dress circle, amphitheatre, and a gallery. By London standards that is pretty ordinary. It doesn’t stand out as anything special in the myriad of architectures and the built environment of London. In 1952 The English Stage Company took it over. It was home to avante garde playwrights and stage productions. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, was staged here. Laurence Olivier appeared in The Entertainer. Arnold Wesker and John Arden wrote for the Royal Court.
“In the mid-1960s, the ESC became involved in issues of censorship. Their premiere productions of Osborne's A Patriot for Me and Saved, by Edward Bond (both 1965) necessitated the theatre turning itself into a 'private members club' to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain, formally responsible for the licensing of plays until theTheatres Act 1968. The succès de scandale of the two plays helped to bring about the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK.”(wikipaedia)

The Royal Court Theater in Sloane Square.

I have a sense of attachment to The Royal Court, its rebelliousness, its artistic challenge to society, its questioning of the status quo. I wish I went to more productions there. In fact that is my promises to myself, “go and see more productions at The Royal Court.” Marilyn and I go to the National Theatre quite often so in one respect I do see challenging and thought provoking plays.
Chelsea and the Sloane Square area at the top of The Kings Road is renowned for its rebelliousness, to a certain extent. It is an area where world renowned artists, writers and musicians have lived and worked. It is where Vivienne Westwood designed the clothes that epitomised Punk Rock and where her then lover and partner Malcolm McLaren produced and promoted arguably, the most iconic Punk Rock group of all time, The Sex Pistols. It is a shame that John Lydon alias Johnny Rotten, their lead singer, nowadays promotes Country Life Butter in TV adverts. However on the other hand was Punk Rock always about selling something? The Sloane area is also famous for the, “Sloane Rangers,” the wealthy heiresses, of multimillionaire and billionaire, “daddies.” It is home to, “Made in Chelsea.” My feet are beginning to drag, just a little by now.

The Duke on The Green. A typical Victorian style pub on Parsons Green.

Walking was becoming a matter of will power. The graceful effortless stride gone.  Seventeen miles walked and still a mile to Trafalgar Square my destination. So onwards once more towards Buckingham Palace Road and, “Buck House.” The streets get darker here somehow. Tall Victorian mansion houses where the nobility of the past had town houses near to the Palace and giant plains trees turn the light down a few lumens. I got to Beaston Place and Victoria Square. Beaston Place has the Gresham Hotel with its brightly lit chandeliers and doormen wearing top hats and gold braid. Smart, straight backed gentlemen. They all look ex-military. The Gresham was where the then future Duchess of Cambridge with her mother and father stayed the night before her wedding to The Duke of Cornwall. Here I am going on about Royalty, using their title. We British think nothing of giving one family millions of pounds every year to live in luxury and splendour and on the other hand our Conservative Government is desperate to take tax credits away from the families living on borderline poverty who could starve. The argument is that the Royal Family are an integral part of our constitution and have to perform on the world stage. Isn’t it an immoral and a twisted sort of thinking? So I struggled on past the palace, not struggling physically but with mixed emotions and thoughts of republicanism fizzing around my brain. “Send the Queen and her leeching family into retirement!” Crowds of tourists were filling the pavements. The Mall was festooned with Union Jacks interspersed with the national flag of China. The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, was to visit our democratic shores within days and he was to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was to be a brightly coloured, pageant laden sales pitch. Britain needs investment. The Queen and The Royals were going to earn their exalted position for flag and country.

The Irish Guards in The Mall

As I got close to Trafalgar Square at the end of The Mall, The Irish Guards band marched past on their way to the Palace. They looked splendid in scarlet jackets and black busbies. I don’t know what they were playing but it sounded wonderful and inspiring. I stopped to look and listen. Trafalgar Square is famous. There are all the obvious things, The National Gallery, South Africa House, The Canadian High Commission, the empty plinth, St Martins in the Fields and of course Nelsons Column. There are two things which make it extra special I think. The first is an awareness of something we might not have been told. Look at the four bronze reliefs positioned around the square base of Nelsons Column. They depict four battles that Nelson was most famous for, The Battle of The Nile, The Battle of Copenhagen, St Vincent and of course Trafalgar in which he was shot and died. The relief that faces south, towards Whitehall, is a scene of battle on one of Nelsons ships. It shows detailed close ups of various officers and ratings in action. One of the ratings is an African. It is good to remember that a great number of the ordinary crew on British 18th century naval ships were press ganged from nations and ports all across the world. The number of languages spoken must have been diverse. It is a tribute to British naval training that Nelson’s crews worked efficiently and with great expertise. 

Part of one of the bronze plaques at the base of Nelsons Column.

Another thing about Trafalgar Square that is special to me are the activities that go on at St Martins in the Field Church. It is a glorious specimen of Georgian church architecture form the 18th century but firstly it is also famous for its free lunchtime music concerts. I have attended a few of these over the years. They comprise performances by up and coming new young musical talent from The Royal College of Music. Very often they are young musicians completing PHD’s in some aspect of music and just starting on their musical performance careers. Every concert I have attended there has, “blown,” my mind. They are terrific. The other thing about St Martins in the Field is its charity work and work with the homeless of London. A gentleman called Dick Shepherd who was the vicar of St Martins from 1914 to 1927 opened his doors to the homeless of London. The crypt of St Martins has been turned into lodgings. The homeless can still stay there. I always think I might need its services one day. I hope not though.

The rear of St Martins in The Fields.

When I arrived at Trafalgar Square I touched the stone base of one of the four bronze lions that surround Nelson’s Column. I can remember when my grandmother first took Michael, my brother and myself up to London the first time for a day trip. Michael was six years old and I was nine years old. We visited The Tower of London. I remember climbing some wooden steps to enter the Norman Keep, the White Tower. I leaned forward and touched the stone surface. I felt as though I was touching the past. I felt connected to a time a thousand years ago. I have tended to do that whenever I visit an ancient site or place of historical interest. I touch it, surreptitiously, when nobody is looking. Just a quick brush with my hand. It connects me.
After this I had a pub lunch at The Princess of Wales in Villiers Street and then walked my tired legs across Hungerford Bridge to Waterloo and used my London Freedom Pass to get me home on the train.