Tag Archives: london

Movie review – The Sense of an Ending

Thanks to my Times+ membership, we’ve just seen a pre-release screening of The Sense of an Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel of the same name.

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Tony Webster is the divorced, almost reclusive and somewhat curmudgeonly owner of a second-hand Leica camera shop in London. He is in close contact with his ex-wife and heavily pregnant daughter, and yet he is emotionally aloof from them.

He is forced to reconsider his view of family, friends and life though, when he receives a strange legacy. The mother of his old girlfriend Veronica from university days, 40 years ago, has died and has bequeathed him a diary. Unexpectedly, the diary belonged to Tony’s old school friend Adrian, who dated the enigmatic Veronica after she and Tony ended their brief and unconsummated relationship.

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But Veronica refuses to give the diary back to Tony, for some reason, and the film delicately unravels the mystery of why, spanning the generations and uncovering uncomfortable truths for Tony.

This is a very English production, filmed mostly on location in Bristol and London, and featuring a stellar cast delivering beautifully understated acting. In the current timeline, Jim Broadbent is the essentially good Tony Webster; Harriet Walter his slightly acerbic wife Margaret;  Charlotte Rampling the older but still mysterious Veronica; Michelle Dockery is the mature daughter Susie facing motherhood alone.

The lesser known actors playing the main characters in their younger years capture perfectly the period and the zeitgeist of youth.

Out in cinemas on general release on April 14th, I’d urge you to see this slow-burning emotional film, whether you’ve read the book or not.

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Exhibition review – Michelangelo & Sebastiano

A confession: my favoured art forms are books, theatre, films….and occasionally dance.

Not that I don’t appreciate art in its purest and most literal form, but I’m more likely to read a book to immerse myself in a cultural landscape, than rush to a city’s art gallery.

Nevertheless, I was very grateful to the lovely folks at TripFiction for passing over their invitation to the new Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery.

Detail from Sebastiano del Piombo, 'The Visitation', 1518-1519. Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures (Inv. 357) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski

It was a real privilege to attend the press launch, a day after Prince Charles had a private viewing but the day before the doors open to the public (March 15 to June 25, 2017). And the exhibition’s curator, Matthias Wivel, was on hand to give a level of insight not even achievable from the excellent audio guide.

The NG provides the first ever exhibition devoted to the creative partnership between Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). Some of the works on show have not previously left their own collections for centuries, so this really is a rather special display.

Sebastiano, a talented young Venetian painter, arrived in Renaissance Rome in 1511. He met the older Michelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the two artists became friends…and tactical allies against rival Raphael.

Sebastiano was the only oil painter in the Eternal City who could challenge Raphael, and was therefore the ideal collaborator for Michelangelo, who didn’t care for the medium of oil.

Sebastiano profited from his friend’s ideas, and together they created several works of great originality and rare beauty. Away from the canvass, their friendship flourished and a real bonus is the display of original letters between the two artists.

But after 25 years of artistic collaboration and personal friendship, the relationship soured so badly that arrogant Michelangelo rubbished Sebastiano’s legacy in the years following the younger man’s death.

The exhibition deftly charts their stories in 6 separate rooms, from early hope to eventual acrimony. But they left a remarkable joint legacy, and the NG has presented a dazzling portrait of both artists.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo. Photograph: National Gallery:

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Big Birthdays

My 60th birthday is just around the corner. It feels like A Big One, a final trip over the threshold of middle age and the beginning of a long, slow fall into the basement of old age.

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How will I mark this bitter-sweet occasion? Gill is generously taking me away somewhere for a couple of days the week before….I know not where. I will hopefully celebrate The Big Day somewhere with the family. And then it’s off to Greece, to magical Zagori in the Pindos mountains of Epirus, an intriguing area I only discovered last year.

No doubt our group of 13 will eat plenty of the excellent local food and partake frequently of friendship-inducing tsipouro, between bursts of energetic mountain-climbing, gorge-walking, horse-riding and whitewater-rafting.

Early Big Birthdays are hazy. Or perhaps I was too focused on bean-counting studying and exams to celebrate 18th and 21st milestones.

I suppose the dedication paid off. I spent my 30th in beautiful life-changing Bermuda, although a joint 29-and-holding Miami Vice party with cute Canadian Diane Olchowik is even more memorable. A long night of Don Johnson no-socks and sleeves-rolled-up dancing and drinking culminated in a bit of skinny-dipping in Sonesta Bay as the sun rose on the island’s legendary south shore beaches.

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Fast forward 10 years and I was working in Germany for a few months. I had just met Gill, now my beloved wife of nigh on 20 years, and she helped to co-ordinate a lovely surprise 40th birthday bash at my brother’s place, while I was home for the weekend.

The Big 5-0 was marked by a moment of madness: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and a staggering 5,895 metres above the wildlife of Tanzania’s Serengeti. The motivation was as much to raise money for a very good cause as it was to shake a fist at the advancing years.

Actually, we climbed Kili in February, a few months ahead of my birthday, to take advantage of one of the climbing windows. May came and it was an excuse for a long weekend of drunken debauchery in the blues bars, pizza places and casinos of Soho.

And here I am, on the cusp of 60. How did that happen? Where have all the years gone? Will I make it to 3 score and 10….?

I’ll report back on the 60th activities. Just in case it’s the last Big Birthday I feel like marking in any memorable way.

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Book review – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene, like a dazzling meteor, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000, written while studying English literature at Cambridge.

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That debut novel captures perfectly the complicated relationships between the English and migrants, particularly those from the old colonial countries. Based in her native north-west London, as most of Smith’s novels are, friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are beautifully drawn characters, with depth and warmth. Their story and the writing linger long in the memory.

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Swing Time also has its roots in north London. Two young brown girls (mixed race, like Smith herself) meet at a community dance class. Tracey is talented and wild. The never-named narrator is smarter, but not such a great dancer.

The novel tracks their stories and relationship over the next 25 years of adolescence and young adult life.

Tracey has some brief but minor stage success, but descends into council estate poverty, with bitterness and with several children from different fathers.

The narrator finds that a weird globetrotting existence, as PA for a Madonna-like superstar, suits her aimless ambition. With no life of her own, she is glued to Aimee’s whims and changing directions. Based mainly in London and New York, as the writer herself is, the story takes on a different dimension when Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in West Africa.

The lesser characters in Swing Time are subtly drawn. Aimee is besotted with much younger Lamin, from the African village, and wants him to become part of her inner circle. Beautiful young Hawa, also from the village, chooses a different escape route. Intellectual philanthropic facilitator Fernando from Brazil falls in love with the narrator.

The novel has been well received, but I’m afraid it falls short of the lasting impression I had after turning the final page of White Teeth. Zadie Smith’s novels have won prizes, she is often included in most influential people lists, and she lives a gilded life spanning New York and London. But somehow Swing Time feels a little too much like a hook for her personal concerns and political beliefs, than a well-formed story with wholly believable characters.

Maybe I’m being excessively critical, but you set the bar very high with White Teeth, Ms Smith. Can you please find another meteor?

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Inspired by a book

Many 15 year-old boys are disillusioned. But not many leave home, telling their parents: “I’m bored with my life. Please don’t try to find me. I’ll be back within a year.”

Arthur Heeler-Frood disappeared on Tuesday, 6th September after leaving home to go to school.

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He has recently been found,  two months later and 10 miles from his rural Devon home, although apparently en route back to his parents.

The pieces of his adventurous jigsaw are being pieced together, but it sounds as though George Orwell was Master Heeler Frood’s inspiration. He had been reading Down and Out in Paris and London, and – like Orwell – had also been washing up in a restaurant kitchen.

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In the iconic book, Orwell’s largely autobiographical novel tells of the underbelly of society in both capital cities.

The author’s 15 year-old disciple apparently spent time walking around England’s three largest cities – London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Other details will no doubt emerge over time, and perhaps Arthur’s adventures will also form the basis of his own novel in later years. But – forgetting the obvious distress for his parents, family and friends – how refreshing that a 21st century boy has been so inspired by a book from the 1930s, rather than by a rap video downloaded from YouTube.

Book review – Ian McEwan’s Nutshell

A novella is defined as a work of written, fictional, narrative prose normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.

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At just 199 pages, I’m not sure if Ian McEwan’s latest literary output Nutshell qualifies as a novel. I’m sure his legions of supporters will gobble up this wholly original story regardless of its definition, but after I read the final sentence – The rest is chaos – I’m afraid I felt just a little cheated.

Why?

Of course it’s cleverly plotted, and dazzlingly written. It couldn’t fail to be, from one of our greatest living writers, the man who created Atonement, Enduring Love, Saturday, The Cement Garden, The Innocent, The Children Act, and many more contemporary literary classics.

Nutshell is narrated by an unborn foetus, who sees his mother and her lover – her husband’s brother – plotting to kill his father. Ring any bells? Yes, the plot gives a very undisguised nod to Hamlet, and some of Mr McEwan’s prose is decidedly Shakespearian at times.

What then are my chances, a blind, dumb invert, an almost-child, still living at home, secured by apron-strings of arterial and venous blood to the would-be murderess?

But shush! The conspirators are talking…

But shush! I’m afraid this feels more like an essay than a fully-formed novel, in the class of Atonement or Saturday. Perhaps he needed to get something out to appease his publishers?

Harsh? Maybe. But can we please have a fully-fledged novel next time, Mr McEwan?

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Restaurant review – Galvin la Chapelle

The Galvin brothers are gastronomic rock & roll stars, with several acclaimed eateries in London and Edinburgh.

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La Chapelle is their outpost near Spitalfields Market in the city, close to Liverpool Street station and Bishopsgate. Once St. Botolph Hall, the building was a girls’ school in the 1890s and served as a parish hall and gymnasium until 1975. It was due for demolition in the late 1970s, until a group of local residents chained themselves to the front door gates to stop the bulldozers moving in.

Derelict for years, it was only opened again in 2009, as La Chapelle restaurant, after extensive refurbishment for Chris & Jeff Galvin.

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And what a refurbishment. As soon as you walk through the front door, the building and the interior space is as much a star as the food. Well, almost. Your eyes are drawn to the soaring cathedral-like ceilings, light flooding in from the Gothic-arched church-like windows, and the suspended mezzanine floor inserted into history.

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The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, and continues to dazzle. We went for the first time a couple of years ago, for a special celebration, and vowed to return.

Well, we just have done. With friends, and to take advantage of a special summer menu, at a fixed price of £29 for 5 gastronomic courses, and including a glass of fizz. Yes, it’s expensive, but not bad value really for such an acclaimed venue.

Parfait of goosnagh duck liver was as light and ephemeral on the tongue as a church wafer…but much more sinful.

Lasagne of Dorset crab, with beurre Nantais and pea shoots, was a perfect marriage of English seaside and Italian pasta. I wonder if it will last…

The central culinary pillar was pot roast supreme of Landes corn-fed chicken, nestling down on a risotto of girolles and soft herbs. This was an unctuous dish, a tad salty but with rice of that perfect texture that is so elusive at home.

The cheese course – a creamy blue Fourme d’Ambert, with grape chutney and walnuts – was so small that we sent out a search party to find the fromage.

But a raspberry souffle, bathed in decadent Valrhona chocolate sauce, was a suitably indulgent finale, before we staggered out into the Spitalfield night.

Service throughout was impeccable. Professional, friendly and engaging, but not subservient as it sometimes can be at temples of gastronomy.

If I’m honest, the meal was slightly disappointing. It fell between the twin stools of a proper a la carte menu and a grazing option, and felt a little like a summer conveyor belt. If you decide to push the boat out, la Chapelle is highly recommended but go for the full a la carte experience, if you and your wallet dare.

Mind The Gap

Genius idea:

Alternative Walking Steps Tube map download

A new Walking Steps Tube map has been launched by Transport for London showing the number of steps between stations.

Transport for London’s (TfL) new version of the iconic Tube map has been created, ironically, to try and get more Londoners off the Underground and out walking in the capital.

Many central London stations are less than 1,000 steps apart and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan says the map will be a fun and practical way to help busy Londoners who want to make walking a part of their everyday lives.  

The estimated direct cost to the NHS of treating obesity, and related morbidity, was £6.3 billion in 2015. Indirect costs are projected to be as high as £27 billion.

Never mind suggesting, how about physically throwing every Londoner off the tube and forcing them to walk a stop or two of their usual commute to work.

Just imagine how competitive people could become, and the conversations by the water cooler….

I bagged 3,000 steps this morning. 2 stops on the Circle & District Line. South Ken to Victoria. Boom. 

Not bad. But I’m gonna walk from Bank to Waterloo on my way home tonight, instead of jumping on the Waterloo & City Line. 3,300 steps. 1 stop. Job done.

Use technology. Lose weight. Get fit. Save the NHS billions.  Result.

Walking reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, stroke and depression. Just a 20 minute walk every day can provide noticeable health benefits.  I hope the new steps map inspires Londoners to travel and experience more of the city on foot. We’ll be rewarded with improvements to our health, economy and the environment around us.

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City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.

 

Spin commute – genius idea

I love spin cycle sessions in the dedicated studio at my local gym. As I wrote a while back, it’s a great way to push through the pain barrier, with the help of a sadistic trainer and some pulsating tunes.

And I love these guys at 1Rebel, funky new fitness gurus I’ve invested a small amount in, via crowdfunding.

They have dreamed up a great concept for their own oversubscribed spin classes, for time-poor cash-rich London commuters….a mobile spinning studio – on a bus. How cool is that! Why waste all that time when you can travel to work AND spin those wheels at the same time.1rebel2.jpg

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And when you’re done, have a cool down and shower at the 1Rebel studio in St. Mary Axe, and grab a refuelling smoothie before hitting the office. BOOM!

1Rebel are talking to bus companies now and hope to launch the service in a few months, if demand is high enough. If I were still working and had a London commute, I’d sign up as quickly as Lance Armstrong had blood transfusions.