Thursday, 28 June 2018

Westminster Bridge revisited

What better place to visit in flaming June than central London.  The heart of a metropolis that provokes thought and, above all, inspires.

With air temperatures in the low 20’s centigrade, this was the ideal opportunity both to explore the capital’s attractions, natural and cultural, on foot; and also to reside in close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. 

On this visit we (my wife and I along with a daughter and eldest grandson) experienced a heady mix of being in a place experiencing historic change as it argues passionately about its future role in the world.   
Our timing coincided with events such as the monarch’s official birthday and notable anniversaries.  These included the centenary of women’s suffrage, the first anniversary of the calamitous fire at Grenfell Tower and the seventieth anniversary of the MV Windrush’s arrival from the Caribbean.  

These events provided quite a backdrop to our purpose in visiting, namely to support and enjoy London’s prominent role as a vibrant cultural city. 

My daughter had bought tickets for a top West End show six months previously, a birthday present that had to be postponed for reasons to do with my inability to travel earlier in the year.  
We had the best seats in the house in the front row of the balcony to see the Garrick Theatre’s production of Young Frankenstein.

Directed by Mel Brooks, this is a musical version of his 1974 film of the same name which starred Gene Wilder.  I remember as a twenty-five year old seeing the film when it was released all those years ago; and, serendipitously, it was screened on terrestrial television in the UK in February this year.   
Guided by the sure-footed Mel Brooks again, this stage version is faithful to the film, equally funny but even more entertaining because it is a live “in your face” performance with great music, brilliant acting performances and impressive stage sets. 

The impact of witnessing such a turbo-charged slick production is pure elation.  A show like Young Frankenstein encourages normal imagination to run riot, to believe that anything is possible, that lateral thinking can make the world a better place.  I would say it was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life.

Taking advantage of the gorgeous weather, we spent a lot of time outdoors in St James’s Park[i] with its pelicans and walking along the Thames embankment.   
En route from our hotel,[ii] which was only about 100 yards from Westminster Abbey, we stopped at Parliament Square.  Our attention was caught by the sight of many women bedecked in the green white and violet tricolour of the suffrage movement.  We soon realised that they were paying homage to Millicent Fawcett.  Six weeks before our visit, she became the first woman to be honoured with a statue erected in Parliament Square.[iii]  Now she stands proudly next to Gandhi looking imperiously across the square to the Houses of Parliament.

After crossing Westminster Bridge and with no particular plan in mind, it was impossible to pass by a small but important exhibition.  Given the prominence of immigration as a determining issue in the outcome of the Brexit referendum two years ago, the appearance of an unassuming pop-up exhibition about the Windrush[iv] generation stopped us in our tracks.   

This temporary event consisted of photographs and panels setting out the story of the brave 492 West Indian people who responded to Britain’s invitation to help rebuild the nation after the war.  A couple of the ship’s survivors were present, happy to greet and tell their own poignant stories.

After enjoying an ice cream break on a summery afternoon and mingling with the happy Sunday crowds, we ventured indoors again to Tate Modern, a respite from the heat.   It is hosting a major exhibition of Picasso’s 1932 works.[v]  
Because I had already bought tickets for another art exhibition the next day, we decided to save money and take advantage of the Tate’s permanent collections.  We viewed a magnificent mix of other artworks by Picasso and an Antony Gormley sculpture.
In addition we saw modern art by great artists such as Salvador Dali, D├ęgas, Georges Braque, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, the Guerrilla Girls[vi], Bridget Riley and Cildo Meireles. 
Cildo Meireles's Babel 2001, a tower of real radios playing at once, about information overload and failed communication

The Tate room which impressed me most was the collection by Mark Rothko, its calming impact.  Perhaps the connection was intensified following the recent 3-part BBC documentary series on modern American art presented by Waldemar Januszczak[vii].  But what a privilege (and great value) it is to visit a major gallery and see important paintings without having to pay.

Our final treat was a visit to the National Gallery.  The attraction was the much heralded exhibition of almost 70 paintings by Monet, brought together from galleries and private collections across the world, including one from Dublin City Gallery.   
It was billed as a look at his career through the buildings he painted from Normandy, Paris, London and Venice.  
London’s official visitor guide[viii] enticed us:
“Monet spent his mornings painting London from a balcony at the Savoy.  In the afternoon he moved across the river to paint the Houses of Parliament from St Thomas’s Hospital.  Over a year, Monet painted 41 different versions of Waterloo Bridge, 35 of Charing Cross Bridge and 21 of the Houses of Parliament.  At one point he was working 65 paintings at the same time.”

Apart from the eight works on show of London landmarks (Waterloo Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Charing Cross Bridge), the painting that resonated with me was his image of Dolceacqua Bridge where we stood on a holiday to Liguria[ix] five years ago.

The previous day when we sat down in the sun taking in the view up and across the Thames, I wondered (lonely as a cloud) what Cumbria’s lyric poet William Wordsworth would have thought about inner London 216 years after composing his romantic paean to the city Upon Westminster Bridge[x].  
Dazzled by a mix of music theatre, last night’s gourmet dinner at the exclusive Ivy restaurant[xi] in Covent Garden, the joy of fine art on two days and no little sunshine a creative thought occurred that simply would not go away. 

If musicians like Jacques Loussier can extemporize with Bach’s airs, if Andrzej Jagodzinski can do likewise with Chopin’s preludes and nocturnes, and with everybody from Rachmaninov to Andrew Lloyd Webber composing Variations of Paganini’s caprice, why not compose a contemporary version of Wordsworth’s ethereal 14-line sonnet.

Taking account of the events and places we visited on this occasion, I present my imagining keeping close to the original masterpiece in form and in words.  
Consequently and iambic pentameter notwithstanding, this might approximate to what the bardic wordsmith might have written today Upon Westminster Bridge.

Earth has not anything to show more fair
Dull would She #MeToo be of soul who could pass by
Red arrows so touching on Her Majesty’s birthday:
This City, now global financial services centre, doth wear
The beauty of Boris bikes in the morning rush hour;
Suffrage statue, edifices dwarfing St Paul’s dome, London Eye
Open unto fields disappeared, new towers scraping the sky
All bright and glittering in the smokeless post-Grenfell air.

Never again will sun more beautifully steep in its splendour
Tate Modern, National Gallery, and Windrush exhibits; ten thousand selfies
Ne’re saw I at a glance, never felt a Mark Rothko calm so deep!
Monet’s fogbound river glideth in plastic at his own sweet will:
Dear PM, courage calls!  The very Houses of Parliament seem asleep;
That mighty heart of Young Frankenstein’s Brexit monster is lying still!

To express the romantic spirit of this sonnet, an actor's dulcet tones would help.  The earthen melodiousness of Liam Neeson’s elocution reciting lyric poetry by Seamus Heaney marvelled this listener recently.  He would add extra gravitas to this offering.

©Michael McSorley 2018

[viii]  Monet and architecture (until July 29)
[x] Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Short summer breaks

As the peak of the summer holiday season arrives in August, it’s opportune to share the joy of short breaks closer to home based on two trips in recent weeks.   
The first journey necessitated flights to England; the second involved a drive by car across the Irish border.

The east of England

At the end of last month, we visited our youngest daughter Jennifer, her husband Sam and their son Max in Essex.  They live in the historic market town of Saffron Walden.  Having experienced its many delights previously, we took our son-in-law’s advice and ventured eastwards on this occasion.  
Following an afternoon visit to Cambridge we set off.  Our destination was East Anglia, more specifically the coastal town of Southwold.

On the previous weekend with my wife making her way to Birmingham to watch a pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament (and travelling on to Saffron Walden a week later), I was tantalised and severely tempted by photographs as Jennifer Sam and Max relaxed on Southwold’s exquisite beach. 


It probably helped that the air temperature was a sweltering 30+ degrees centigrade.

There was only one logical course of action.  After observing that the weather was set fair for the coming weekend, a decision was rapidly made to fly over at the end of the week and meet up with my wife and Jennifer in the tropical south-east.

This turned out to be a wise choice because the pleasing climate allowed us to capitalise on the resort’s outdoor opportunities.   

Sandcastles were built, 

we explored the town’s uniquely well-preserved pier replete with all manner of Victorian inspired eccentric amusements


and we ate superb fresh fish in waterfront restaurants.

On our second day, I had time to test the waters with a sea swim.  Normally I wouldn't consider swimming in the sea until late August or September but this turned out to be an invigorating personal highlight of our short getaway in Southwold.  The benign water temperature enabled me to splash and thrash about for surprisingly longer than the 60 second dip I had anticipated beforehand.

We also visited the area’s best known attraction, Adnam’s.  Best known for its beers, this is a company which also also directly retails a diverse range of its own drinks and even kitchenware in very impressive modern premises.  Its ambient outdoor restaurant appealed the most to us.

Having made the decision to visit Suffolk’s east coast at such short notice, finding accommodation for a group of four adults and a toddler took a little more time to arrange.  
In the end, fortunately, we were delighted to find a place to stay about twenty minutes inland[i].  Glamping is the neologism.

Our accommodation for two nights was based on an isolated rural farmstead in the scenic Waveney Valley.  It offered us a genuine Mongolian yurt 

together with a conventional annexe (to the main farmhouse) which supplied all of the facilities we needed to be self-catering.
That said, the only meal we prepared was breakfast on both days.

A relaxing and tranquil rural idyll.

Sam’s eloquent testimonial summed up our thoughts:-

“Celeste and Sergei were wonderful and welcoming hosts. We were a family of 5, grandparents, parents and a three year old. The Yurt and the annexe were clean and very comfortable, our three year old loved the 'adventure' and sleeping in the big tent. Local beer in the fridge, milk, eggs from the farm and a range of supplies for breakfast were very much appreciated.  The garden is beautiful and walking around the farm is a pleasure.  The goats and numerous chickens were friendly and another great addition for our son.  Would return without hesitation.”

The west of Ireland

Two weeks later accompanied by Jennifer’s older sister, Deirdre and her two daughters (who live in the magnificent Scottish Highlands), we drove the 170 mile journey from Belfast to Ballina in County Mayo.  
Based on a friend’s recommendation, we booked a self-catering lakeside lodge which is part of a hotel[ii] two miles south of the town.

Situated in the successfully-marketed Wild Atlantic Way which includes Ireland’s west coast, Mount Falcon itself is set in 100 acres of its own estate parkland.  Appropriately, it offers displays of falconry, they also have hawks, and visitors can engage in rural sports including clay pigeon shooting and archery.
A peregrine falcon with handler

A harris hawk sitting on a neighbour's car

But what a tranquil location, both by day and by night - in spite of all of the activity.  
If anybody out there wants to escape to a peaceful place where you will be well fed either to write a book or to compose a symphony, this estate would be an inspirational choice.

On the first of our three evenings, I was walking past the lake opposite our lodge and heard what sounded like someone dropping a stone into the water.  I looked around and dispensed with that theory, there being nobody else nearby.  Then I heard the same sound again.  Looking at the lake, I spotted a fish leaping straight up to catch an insect.  What a sight.  Our gorgeous little lake is full of trout.

Next morning I ventured out for a short bike ride.  On the 6 mile stretch of road from the hotel to Foxford (with its woollen mills), I noticed several signs for fisheries, a larger sign advertising the Ballina Salmon Festival starting the week after our departure, and places to eat and drink like the Mayfly Inn.  There is a theme here.   
Later that day, my wife told me that she had spotted a flier describing Ballina as the salmon capital of Ireland.
Mayo salmon on the Mount Falcon menu

Ballina, Foxford and Mount Falcon are situated on the River Moy.  The ardent fisherman, legendary English footballer and former manager of the Ireland football team, Jack Charlton, was so impressed with Ballina that he bought a house there.  Its back garden faced the River Moy.

For the purposes of keeping our two grandchildren amused, the hotel’s spacious grounds with leaping trout and its other wildlife, especially ducks, were perfect for some nature study especially when weather conditions were so favourable.   

In addition there was a kids club in the morning, after which we would bring them to the hotel’s swimming pool before heading off into Ballina for lunch.

Just like our earlier visit to East Anglia, the beach was the best alternative attraction.  It must be at least fifteen years ago since Marie and I last visited the nearby County Sligo town of Enniscrone.   
This was the opportunity to introduce new members of our family to its sand dunes and beach with loads of sea swimmers.  Candy floss and an arcade of amusements were predictably popular with our two young visitors.

The abiding memory I took away from that earlier visit was attending the Hot Seaweed Baths.  This Edwardian institution has been operated by the same family for over 100 years[iii].   
On this return trip, I was delighted to see that it is still as popular as ever.

Ballina’s charm was well diagnosed by my daughter who knows a bit about retail therapy.  Almost in the planning parlance that her father might use about town centre health checks, she astutely observed that it has a reasonable number of national multiples, but that these are well outnumbered by local businesses.  
Their presence adds an emphatic local accent and individuality to Ballina’s shopping offer.

On a pleasant summer’s day where else would you want to be – apart from Enniscrone’s seaweed baths or maybe its beach - or Southwold’s golden sands. 

The west of Ireland and the east of England, a broad horizon, perfect for short breaks.   
Both have beauty in spades.

Lakeside lodges Mount Falcon Ballina
Beach huts in Southwold

©Michael McSorley 2017