I visited London one day recently and whilst there took the opportunity to do a bus tour of the city.
London was my home in the past (in the Bayswater area) for eight years. Also I was a regular visitor from Orpington during my childhood and teens, since I lived twenty five minutes train ride away. But on this occasion I thought it would be fun to view the capital through different eyes – those of a tourist – and to see if I learned anything new.
And I must admit the only new thing I recall learning was the location of the residence of Elton John. And the interesting information the tour guide revealed, that this was a nice little earner from him in between whiles, as he, a struggling musician, strove to get paid gigs for himself and his band.
But it was also a wonderful opportunity to take a variety of photos upstairs on the open top bus.
So here are some of the images I collected on that day, some taken on foot, and others from the top deck of the tour bus.
Perhaps it’s because I no longer live there, but instead am a frequent visitor, that I see London at its very best. I don’t think regular commuters, or those who live there, would necessarily see only the most delightful, intriguing and colourful aspects of the city!
But take a look at this post on my blog from seven years ago. There you will definitely see this great city through the eyes of one who can afford the luxury of a certain “distance” from the mundanities and challenges and stresses of city life, which may nevertheless give the space needed for fresh insights…
Psychological, paranormal mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
I loved this book – attracted to it originally in the shop of the Royal Naval College Visitor Centre, Greenwich, by its delightful, playful cover design.
London: A Spiritual History by Edoardo Albert begins by telling the history of London from well before the Roman invasion, and then bringing us through to the present day, interspersed with plenty of personal observations from the author who spent several years as a TV repairman travelling the London streets and working in many different people’s homes.
Albert’s survey of London history is fascinating, and further enlivened by his own personal take on famous characters like Thomas Cromwell, (Henry VIII’s right-hand man), and William Blake, the visionary.
Then the author moves into his own personal spiritual search over many years, which interweaves with London and its multi-faceted character, from Catholicism through atheism and then onto the various magical and mystical groups with which London abounds.
I identified with so much of this, having lived in central London during my twenties, and having tried out many of these groups myself throughout the capital, such as the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain – not to mention a passing flirtation with the Rosicrucians. though I can’t claim to have applied for membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn!
Albert’s final “epiphany” comes with such disarming simplicity it is genuinely moving. A highly recommended book.
psychological, paranormal mystery fiction
Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path
Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.
Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.
And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’
In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.
And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.
For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.
It took the wealthy and powerful to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.
The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital. A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.
When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….
Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.
Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved. Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.
This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.
I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.
Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…
I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands; foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;
I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition: the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.
So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers, the ministers, the politicians, and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town
In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.
I recently went to see the musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London where a magnificent cast through phenomenal singing and dancing told the story of a man who lived and died passionately and made big mistakes which swept him through to a memorable death.
Through powerful singing and dynamic, electrifying, whiplash sharp dancing, we were captivated by the ideas that first gripped the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, when he began to read the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and felt he identified with the origins of Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
A spectacular and compelling musical, certain words in the songs stand out for me: Hamilton sings that he wants to “build something that will outlive me. If you don’t stand for something what will you fall for?”
And at the end, we hear Aaron Barr – a man for whom we feel sympathy in this telling of the story, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, sing these words to us: “I survived but I paid for it, now I am the villain in your story.”
I loved the way the dynamics of storytelling held us all in its grip throughout the performance, and especially the way the duels were choreographed. One of the most stunning (literally!) parts of the musical came when the dancers froze the moment in which the bullet was fired which killed Hamilton. Brilliant choreography and dancing suspended our disbelief as we watched the bullet arrested in mid-flight.
When I originally heard of Hamilton the musical, a year ago when my daughter first bought the tickets, I thought, What a peculiar subject for a musical. I thought exactly the same when I first heard about The Book of Mormon – another brilliant London musical which made a big impact on me.
Now I confess I think you can make any subject at all into a musical so long as you have a creator who can inspire total confidence with his passion to believe in and run with a central idea, and as long as you end up with fantastic songs, words, character and story.
Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.
To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.
But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.
When we visited on Saturday, as Sherlock fans, we found much to enthral, amuse and intrigue us. I was particularly captivated by a number of paintings of Victorian London in the fog, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used to such great effect in his Sherlock Holmes stories.
He used the fog of London almost as a character in its own right, as a metaphor for human life, and for the mysteries Holmes was called upon to unravel. Sherlock Holmes’s familiarity with the rail network, the bus routes, the streets, pubs and cafes was used not only to give the stories character and depth but almost to power them. The exhibition enriched my understanding of how setting itself fires and drives a writer’s creativity.
The number of actors (the highest on the list, to my mind, are Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch) who have portrayed Holmes in the media is just one indication of the hold the character has taken on the public imagination.
An inspiring and illuminating exhibition which I recommend to all lovers of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
This production was originally commissioned by Sydney Opera House for its Graphic Festival and we saw the first of two nights at the Barbican to be followed by one night at Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Having read and loved Neil Gaiman’s novels Coraline and The Graveyard Book I was looking forward to seeing this with my two teenage children. From his books and his tweets, I expected Neil Gaiman to be more zappy and over-the-top in person; but he isn’t; he’s gentle and laidback and low-key in his manner, with a self-deprecating humour.
Surely this is the best persona for him to adopt as he tells his tales. Anyone who knows his work expects a playfully dark twist. And this was fully realized in his novelette The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. In this he has chosen to create a Scottish tale, a grim and sombre story of revenge, written with a poetic quality appropriate for a tale from the Outer Hebrides set at the time of the Jacobite rebellion.
It was accompanied by big-screen projections of the illustrations by Eddie Campbell which were astonishingly vivid and real, by turns haunting, harsh and beautiful, conveying the atmosphere of the terrain and the ever-darker direction of the story. We were held captivated throughout Neil Gaiman’s narration; the musicians accompanied the tale with such emotional intelligence and imagination, it was an outstanding display of creative genius.
The story of the dwarf who goes searching for the cave of gold, accompanied by the mysterious tall “border reaver”, has played on my mind ever since, as I considered the rhythm and poetry of it, the elements of darkness and horror, and the moral lesson that lay behind it.
An evening which will stay in my mind for a long time.
I was there on Saturday, with my daughter Abigail, watching a performance of Swan Lake in the round, by the English National Ballet. Sixty swans danced in the arena below us, transformed into a lake by skilful lighting effects; and the audience delighted in the performances of Dmitri Gruzdyev as Prince Siegfried and Fernanda Oliveira as Odette and Odile.
The earliest memory I have of the Royal Albert Hall is when, as a child, I sang in the Chorus of Younger Angels in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
I stood close to the organ; and I’ve never forgotten that tremendous experience as trumpets, drums and organ, under Leonard Bernstein’s flambuoyant direction, brought Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ to its thunderous conclusion.
During my sixth form days in Orpington, Kent, I often took the train to London with my schoolfriends so we could sit on the pavement outside the Royal Albert Hall in a queue for promenaders tickets for the BBC Proms; and then, once inside the door, sprint to the arena, to find the best place at the front, near the conductor’s rostrum.
One summer, I spent several hours walking up and down the queue with spare tickets to sell, having bought Gallery tickets for a half season.
Later, when I lived in Bayswater, London W2, the Royal Albert Hall was just a stroll across Kensington Gardens, to go to the rehearsals and concerts of another choir I sang in – the London Choral Society.
Whenever I now enter the Royal Albert Hall, I feel a deep sense of affection and euphoria.
This great circular space is to me, and to many even without such memories, both grand and intimate.
It’s also wonderfully flexible,with its central arena, for many great occasions.
The Hall was originally supposed to have been called The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, but the name was changed by Queen Victoria to Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when laying the foundation stone, as a dedication to her deceased husband and consortPrince Albert. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort – the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the road Kensington Gore.
Thank you to Queen Victoria for deciding to commemorate Albert in this, among many other ways!
On a recent visit to the Churchill War Rooms in London, I experienced in my imagination what it would have been like to work as part of Winston Churchill’s team underground during the Second World War.
As I walked through the offices and passed the displays and spent time in the Churchill Museum, I was particularly struck by the meaning of the words Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
These facts stood out for me afresh:
1) If Winston Churchill had died a few years earlier he’d have been a brilliant failure.
2) He entered office as Prime Minister at the age of 65.
3) His inspirational speeches made a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War by raising the morale of the nation.
4) He was a difficult man personally, yet he inspired admiration and loyalty and devotion in all who worked for him.
5) We owe our freedom to him.
6) Times were uncomfortable and hard and restricted, yet people accepted it.
7) His speeches move us even now, and we can apply them to our lives even 67 years after WW II ended.
Another thing that shone out was the personal account of Churchill’s secretary – she described what it was like to type out his letters as he dictated them to her.
As someone who has had experience of numerous bosses in this kind of office situation, I thought to myself, He sounds like a nightmare boss. I’d have hated working for him!
And yet those who worked for him had only admiration, devotion and loyalty. One of the comments his secretary made was especially meaningful: “Sometimes what he was saying was so interesting, I would forget to type.”
I would recommend a visit to the Churchill War Rooms to anyone visiting London. It is a profoundly moving experience, which should make you look at your own daily life, and even your place in history, and in this world, with new eyes.