Sunday, 3 December 2017

Hidden London - The Mithraeum

A month or so ago Bloomberg opened its new billion pound building in the City. It has been carefully built over the remains of a rare piece of Roman London, a temple to Mithraeus. An experience has been created, but this is not a cheesy affair in the slightest.

Some of the 600 finds are artfully displayed. The rest, including the key find - the bust of Mithras -  are in the Museum of London. Ipads are on hand to describe to the exhibits. These are well worth lingering over, especially the wooden tablets, one with first time Londinium was written, and another being the oldest piece of Roman writing in Britain, and funnily enough an IOU between two freemen.

Downstairs there is an interactive display voiced by Joanna Lumley.

Downstairs again, at timed intervals, hence the need to book a ticket, is the temple itself. You enter in the dark. Its slowly revealed clever lighting and subtle smoke effects, along with the soundtrack of voices and chanting, attempts to create something of the cult experience.

It's mysterious and slightly shivery, and was just the perfect thing to explore on a freezing day.

The location specific irony of the men only Mithraeus cult, based as it seems to have been on rather a lot of feasting, should not be lost on anyone.

To get your glimpse, book a litter to Walbrook. No denari required.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Ty Newydd - You wanted outcomes

My car tyres crunch on the slate chips in the car park. I open the door and breathe in some sweet Welsh air. It’s raining, that fine rain that has you soaked in minutes. No matter, no-one comes here for the weather. Any sun and sitting in the garden this week will be a bonus. I lift my case and book bag from the boot and trundle down the path towards the front door of the large stone built Georgian house. There is only bird song to greet me until I swing open the office door and say hello. I am greeted warmly.

I’ve arrived a few hours early, as is my habit to take the early road across half the country, so I am offered my choice of rooms. This week I fancy Lloyd George’s bedroom. I’m not afraid of ghosts and the fact that he died here bothers me not a jot. It’s a huge room and I have it to myself. It affords me a view of the front garden with its herbaceous borders, pebbled path and imposing wrought iron gates beyond which is the wooded drive.

I unpack, wander down to the kitchen to make myself tea, and mug in hand I refresh my memory of the layout of the house, standing and staring at various spots; the library with its weird acoustic, the dining room, and garden, which in the still damp I take a proprietorial tour around to the end gate and its uplifting view over the fields to the sea in one direction, and to Snowdonia in the other. I turn back to look at the white painted rear elevation of the house, picking out the stages of building from the various shiny slate roofs and glass extension. My tea is a drinking temperature now. A true refreshment. I retrieve my notebook and pen, then settled in the back porch wrapped in a throw, I start writing.

I have been attending courses at Ty Newydd for nearly fifteen years. In that time I have had the pleasure of being taught, encouraged, supported and promoted by major poets, Welsh and otherwise – Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, Daljit Nagra, and Robert Minhinnick to name just a few. It was only after my very first course there with Gillian and Carol Ann that I had the confidence to apply to do an MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. As part of that degree we also attended Ty Newydd for a weeklong workshop where I was taught by Sheenagh Pugh, Tony Curtis, Philip Gross, Des Barry, and others. After graduation, I attended the workshop as a fringe member, using the opportunity as a writing retreat.

I have been a long-standing supporter of Ty Newydd. It is my home in Wales. I am 55 now and very far from retirement. My writing is nothing like a hobby. If poetry could give me a living, I would certainly be doing it full time. In the last decade, since Carol Ann wrote “Brilliant!” on one of my poems at Ty Newydd, I have:

·      published over two hundred poems in various magazines,

·      had six collections of poetry published (the next one is out in 2018), one of which was reviewed in the PBS magazine, and all of which have had good reviews,

·      been widely anthologised,

·      read at countless festivals and poetry evenings in the UK and France,

·      won poetry prizes,

·      founded a literary association in Paris that runs workshops, open mic nights and publishes a magazine, Paris Lit Up, for which I edited the poetry,

·      taught writing workshops for Oxford University and the Poetry School,

·      been elected to the Welsh Academy of Letters, and

·      had my website archived by the National Library of Wales.

Would I have had the chutzpah to do all of this without the confidence in my work and path given to me at Ty Newydd? Most probably and resoundingly not.


Saturday, 2 September 2017

Glasgow Girls

It's always rather annoyed me that Mackintosh and the Boys get so much attention, when there were brilliant women artists working in Glasgow at the same time. Margaret MacDonald is probably the most important of these. Her high Art Nouveau interiors are magnificent as in this example from Kelvingrove.

Her gesso panels can also be found in the Glasgow School of Art, which is currently scaffolded and sheeted and undergoing an enormous and accurate restoration after the fire. Other work is in the Mackintosh house at the Hunterian, no doubt amongst other places. Her sweeping lines, stylised roses and delicate portraits especially please me.

The Glasgow Boys

I haven't been to Glasgow in literally decades, but this summer touring myself around the country to friends far flung, I had the chance to visit the boys again. They are in Kelvingrove in a room of their own and the scattered about the Hunterian, shining in all their glory. These are my favourites:

Henry and Hornel's collaboration - The Druids bringing in the Mistltoe - mysterious, huge, shiny and Klimtish. I just love the invention of mythology.

Guthrie - A funeral service in the Highlands - a monumental canvas for the subject matter where the foreground space is hugely important, snow covered echoing the grey sky. Also, no women as was traditional.

Guthrie - Old Willie, the village worthy - just the most wonderful portrait

Henry - Japanese lady with a fan - All things Japanese were especially in vogue at this point and this is a fabulously understated painting in its sombre palette and select use of colour, and the seemingly modest turned away face erotically exposing her neck.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Boating on the River Lea

The Lea (Lee) is a navigable river running from the Chilterns that, as it reaches London, becomes canalised. Largest of the Thames tributaries, it has been written about many times, most notably by Iain Sinclair. It is a liminal river, so if you like your day's boating alternating between flooded gravel pits, woods, meadows, and almost wild camping, and industrial depots, food distribution centres, speed racing tracks and pylons, which indeed have a beauty of their own, this is the one to cruise.

It is packed with canal boats and barges, and towards the River Stort, river boats. The locks, patience required at these, are variously automatic, semi-automatic or manual, but mostly the latter, so expect to develop some serious muscle. Alternatively you can try smiling nicely at watching weight lifters and give them an excuse to show off their hours in the gym to more practical effect.

Urban legend has it that there is a crocodile in the Lea, fond of taking Canada geese and swans, but we saw nothing more exciting than said geese, swans, moorhens and coots. Although, as dusk started to fall, a kingfisher swooped in front of the boat and quickly back into the cover of a willow. That was uplifting.

There are two kinds of boaters - those with permanent moorings that can run to such luxuries as washing machines, barbeque decks, small gardens, club houses and electricity, and those who have to move their boats from the public moorings every two weeks or risk being fined by the Canal and Rivers Trust and its large team of volunteer wardens. Fair enough. Them's the rules, and many young people are living on the water in London in this way. The bearded and tattooed hipster quotient is quite high.

There could not have been a better day than last August bank holiday to chug up the Lea. Twenty eight degrees made the locks hard and thirsty work. Bob Marley on the sound system in celebration of Carnival turned a few appreciative heads as we passed by, or as they passed us by on the cycle path. And we haven't quite got over the sight of a boat with what seemed to be hemp growing in pots on its roof. Ah, London. Ah, summer.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Giacometti at Tate Modern

It's been an age since Giacometti had an exhibition in London, but what a disappointingly small one this was. There were too few rooms. I reached the end before I had really started.

Tiny sculptures that my old eyes can barely make out, especially if they are tucked behind poorly lit glass, large works that in all honesty I have seen many times before, and some of which are not actually that interesting, and the dark palette of his paintings, had me scratching my head, again.

Yes, I get it, working and reworking and paring down to the essence, with a limited number of sitters, but perhaps something more cheerful? Easy for me to say, as I did not live through the horrors of war or the immediate post-war reality of Europe.


Monday, 14 August 2017

Another good reason to go to Birmingham

Wandering recently, I found myself in the church that became a cathedral in the town that became a city, and huge surprise, the stained glass was designed by Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris. Who knew?

There are four huge panels, three behind the altar and one at the rear of the cathedral, all in luminous red and blue. Interestingly, and out of the usual chronology, the ascension is directly behind the altar and the crucifixion to the right.

My favourite was the birth of Jesus, especially the shepherds and the heavenly host appearing above a very gothic wood, not bare grassy slopes.

Worth a detour, even if you have to wait a few minutes for a wedding party to vacate the premises.