Thursday, November 08, 2007

English Reflections

England is such an expensive place. A drink of ginger beer, cup of soup and a sandwich at the Royal Festival Hall was twenty three dollars – a ticket to the Philharmonia was seventy six dollars and the tube there was five – over a hundred dollars to listen to Sibelius (Karelia and the violin concerto) and Tchaikovsky (4th symphony). Some things are a better deal – The Wigmore Hall has Sunday morning coffee concerts for twenty dollars (Vermeer String Quartet playing Mozart 22 and Beethoven 15) and the Wyndham Theatre on Charring Cross Road has Charles Dance performing in a moving stage play Shadowlands – for fifty dollars. Even getting in to see some pop art (including Warhol’s Marilyn’s) at the National Portrait Gallery was twenty two dollars – all this is cheap because the Canadian dollar hit $1.07 last week. But just look – a couple of concerts, a play and an exhibition for one hundred and thirty five dollars.

“I don’t know how people manage to afford to live here,” commented an affable Canadian in the torture chamber they call Heathrow airport. The answer is that they don’t. Personal debt in Britain is now at £1.73 trillion and grows at £15 million an hour each hour, each day. Personal debt in Britain will lead to close to 50,000 houses being repossessed during 2008 if interest rates remain the same as they are now, which is unlikely. It’s getting tough out there – 40% of those who now apply for additional credit, can’t get it and many more will find themselves squeezed when the credit crunch really comes home to roost post the sub-prime melt down which is now disabling global credit systems.

All of this is most notable with the elderly, who suddenly find their pensions do not match their basic needs. They look shabby, under nourished and ill treated – many walking with a shuffle and not a smile. They have some concessions – a free bus ride anywhere in Britain will shortly be possible and there are seniors discounts for concerts – but not many. Britain is a place that doesn’t treat its old kindly.

Nor is it a place that is particularly British. During my recent one week stay, it was rare to hear English spoken – in fact, it was more probable in Bayswater to hear Polish or Italian or some eastern European language. The revelation that Britain has had over 1,500,000 immigrants since 2000 and that over half the new jobs created by “new” (read tired and worn out) Labour have gone to immigrant workers is not at all surprising. It is also worrying – politically, immigration and race are back on the agenda and this is never a good thing in a country which hates the French, treats the Italians as a joke and thinks the Scots are heathens. One conservative party candidate had to resign after praising Enoch Powell’s foresight in his “rivers of blood” speech in the 1970’s.

What is it with hotels in Britain? I checked in to the Royal Hyde Park Hotel, Queensway in Bayswater – two minutes from the tube. The room was the size of a double bed plus two feet on one side and at the foot of the bed, plus a kind of cupboard in which there was a shower, toilet and washbasin the size of a teacup.

So into small was this hotel that the sheet on the bed was not big enough to cover the mattress. No wonder they make you pay before they give you the key!

I managed a week in this box. They made the bed each day (but not on Sunday) and provided clean towels each day and that was that. There was a tiny wardrobe and three coat hangers, five little drawers and a table at the foot of the bed just big enough for a kettle, a cup and possibly a box of tissues (not supplied).

Breakfast was included, though inedible (toast prepared at 7.30 for a breakfast not available until 8) and coffee that tasted like sludge with dandruff in it.

Oh, there was a television – in one corner some six feet up on the wall. It was a small television, not big enough to watch anything serious or long – squinting to make sure you could see it hurt my eyes.

I did not spend long in this room – just enough to sleep (being careful to sleep on the sheet and not the mattress) and I breakfasted across the street at a cafĂ©. Eating locally – Lebanese, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Italian, Welsh..- was the best way to go.

Ryanair is the airline everyone uses and loves to hate. I flew from Stanstead to Dublin and back for a total cost of twenty two pounds plus the tube and rail fare to get there – another twenty two pounds. The airline left on time and was early landing both going and coming back. It was efficient, cheap and easy. I don’t know why people get upset. For the money, it’s a great deal – I left at 0930 and was back downtown in time for a meal and a movie.

I met with some business colleagues at a hotel in Dublin. There was a nice incident. One of my colleagues is allergic to cows milk and related products. He asked the waitress if the feta cheese in the Greek salad was goats feta, she said “no, its from Denmark”. Reminds me of a time in a pub in northern Alberta when I asked for a Tuborg and was told by an innocent barmaid that they “were out of borg’s”, and “would you like two of anything else?”

My friend Sarajane and her partner Brian took me out on the town on my birthday. After a long and leisurely breakfast, Brian and I went to the Pop Art exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. Brian was a student of art history and teaches watercolour to adult education students, so this was a special treat and much appreciated. The Pop Art was a little disappointing – not much energy in the exhibit and a great many pieces not there which should have been. But then I went around the rest of the NPG – what a terrific place. Full of wonderful evocative portraits - many which I had only seen in books. Vivid, bright paintings which capture the essence of the people.

Later, I also managed a quick trip to the Bankside to see the autumn watercolour exhibition from the Royal Watercolour Society – some very fine paintings, including one from HRH Prince Charles. Some of the landscapes and abstract watercolours were exceptional.

Popped into the Tate Modern to see the “crack” in the floor – no idea how this has been done, but it does attract a lot of interest. Apparently, someone actually got stuck in it early on.. there is no accounting for stupidity.

Then onto Tate Britain to see the Malais as well as the Hockney on Turner exhibition. The Malais was wonderful – his Ophelia will be a painting I will never forget, and some of his portraits (especially of his own daughters) are simply magnificent. He was a master of art and a terrific portrait painter.

Which is more than can be said for the Hockney on Turner exhibition. It would be more accurate to describe it as a heck of a lot of Turners, which I do not enjoy at the best of times, with the odd comment from Hockney.

The good news is that the fish and chips at the Tate Britain are just as good as at the Tate Modern – both top class, amongst the best in London.

Saw two films. Rendition – the story of how the US used third parties to conduct torture interviews with suspected terrorists –very compelling, if a little brutal. Strong acting. Also saw Keira Kinghtley in a very classic version of the Ian McEwan novel Atonement. Superb acting all round, though a friend suggested that Keira was a little overly proper – too clipped and trying too hard to be British upper class. It worked as movie, mainly because of the strength of the ensemble as a whole, but especially because of the strong acting from the three women playing Brierly at three stages of her life.

On the flight back saw Once – a light film about an Irish man trying to make it in the music business who befriends a young Czech girl. Nothing to write home about.

Lest you think I did nothing but gad about doing arty things and eating, I also taught at Oxford with my partner Don Simpson and finalised a deal over two days (one in Dublin) with Middlesex University and met up with colleagues who run the Irish Centre for Work Based Learning. I also fell asleep on a train returning from Oxford to London and was gently woken by a guard – thus saving me a return trip to Oxford I did not want to make (at least no one stole my teeth, which is what happened to my brother who fell asleep on a bus, found himself in Scotland (he was just going to Leeds) sans false teeth, which someone had stolen from his pocket).

Read the novella by Alan Bennet The Uncommon Reader. It is about The Queen taking up reading and it changing her life – clever, as one might expect from Alan, and insightful about the power of books. There are some wonderful one liners, especially when he refers to gay authors (of which he, of course, is one) and the odd jab at fellow scribblers.

The book reminded me of a joke, attributed to the late Victor Borge. He said that if you put ten monkeys in front of a piano they would eventually play Mozart, but you would have to put up with a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber before you got there.

There is a lot of talk in Britain about dumbing down – people say that all this reality television is “dumbing down” the BBC or that the English press, especially The Times and The Telegraph, is “dumbing down”. By this it is meant that there is an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator and to over play the cult of the largely unknown celebrity. This is true, though occasionally both television and the newspapers surprise by either a stunning drama or excellent and critical reporting. Both television news and the intelligent press coverage of events in Pakistan this last weekend (the President declared a state of emergency and imprisoned over 500 of his opposition and muzzled the media) show that the team can still bat a good innings when given the opportunity to do so. There was also a new Stephen Poliakoff film (Joe’s House) which I saw most of, but fell asleep before the end. Two terrific paired television dramas – Britz by Peter Kosminsky – showing how seemingly ordinary sons and daughters of immigrant parents can become terrorists also suggest that “dumbing down” is only part of the story.

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