Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Two dates with art (not the dried fruit!)

On Sunday, I had an art-date with myself at the National Portrait Gallery, specifically the Lucian Freud exhibit. I set out early on the path specified by the London Transport website which was, I'm sure, as accurate as it could be. Still, by the time I was making my way to the bus stop, I was a little confused about which side of the street to stand on.  It was a brilliant clear day which made it hard for me to read the signs and the street was empty.  Suddenly, out of the shadows, stepped an older man dressed in blue.  His gray hair was long and smoothed down around his ears in what seemed like an old-fashioned debonair style.  His eyes were blue and very kind.  "May I help?"

He got me oriented; turns out he was waiting for the same bus.  To make conversation, I said, "It's a beautiful day."

"Yes," he said, pursing his lips, "but it's just wrong.  It shouldn't be like this at this time of the year.  It's completely off."

I agreed, thinking of global warming, etc. 

"All anyone thinks of is that it's a nice day," he continued.  "I'm a gardener.  I can read it in the gardens.  The daffodils came up and withered under all this sun.  In the right weather for this time of year, you can have a month or more of daffodils.  No.  In Augusta, for the Masters, they had no azaleas!  They tried wrapping them and refrigerating them.  No.  They always have azaleas then.  No."  He shook his head grimly.

"And the water!  Even with all the rains, we don't have enough."

"The earth can't soak it up?" I ventured.

"That's it.  When the ground is dry the worms all go down to where the water is.  You can tell there's enough water when the badgers start digging to get to the worms.  And of course it's terrible for the birds too who are trying to raise their young and can't get any worms to feed them."  He tsked.

I felt that this man loved the earth and was as connected to it as anyone I've ever known.  Our bus arrived. 

"So you like art?" he asked because I told him I was going to the National Portrait Gallery.  He pointed out a small gallery as we passed it, then said, "Lucian Freud used to live right over there.  Terrible gambler.  Terrible.  Used to see his brother Stephen down to the pub but not so much anymore.."

A brief pause as passengers boarded.

"Course he had the money to gamble, didn't he?  He sold his paintings for millions.  Now it's the footballers make all the money.  No one needs all that money."

We approached his stop and he gave me a sly look.  "I prefer the art in nature," he smiled.

Well, on that day, I preferred the art of Lucian Freud--a special exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery.  Previously, all I knew was that he was a grandson of Sigmund Freud and that he made portraits.  That's putting it mildly---his portraits are both incredibly realistic and deeply psychological.  In some the paint is layered so thickly that the art approaches sculpture.  In all, the variations of skin tone are acutely observed.  They say he painted 7 days a week with several paintings going at once to accommodate the various sitters.  He'd work on 'day' pictures in the morning and afternoon and then work on 'night' pictures after dark.  The night pictures were illuminated by bright electric lights which made for dramatic shadows. 

Many of the portraits are head and shoulders, but he also made many very large nudes, including one of an obese woman sleeping.  That one holds the record for the highest price paid for a piece of art by a living artist.  He was still working right up to his death at the age of 88 last year.  The exhibit concluded with a nearly finished portrait of his assistant and dog. 

Although he worked relentlessly, he somehow found time for 2 marriages followed by many, many affairs.  He is said to have fathered up to 40 children although I think only 10 or so are acknowledged. 

On the next evening, I accompanied Tracey Logan to her recital with the London Philharmonic Choir.   I've been in a few choirs, including one large one at Michigan State which performed Handel's Messiah.  This was MUCH MUCH more!

The rehearsal was with a guest conductor for the upcoming performance of Carmina Burana.  If you know the piece, you know that there are some very dramatic choral surges.  Amazing.  And what was more amazing is that the group could pinpoint a spot in the score from a cold start and 3,2.1: LA!  right on beat and in tune.  Then flip forward 5 or more pages, pinpoint, 3,2,1: lo....  As I was the only 'audience' member, I felt the full force of it coming at me.  Wow.

When I introduced myself to the music director, I mentioned that my great grandfather was Carl Nielsen, a famous  Danish composer.  Well---murmur, murmur, murmur---this news made its way around and I felt that I was suddenly afforded a level of respect certainly beyond what I deserve.  Carl's youngest twin sons, Ivan and Thorvald, came to the U.S. sometime in the 30's.  Thorvald is my father's father, but my father was adopted so I can't claim a real 'blood' relation although I was very proud of my name!

 I'm feeling artistically nourished to my roots--just enough water and sun for this gal.

Monday, May 14, 2012

odds and bobs, part 4

While we were in Cardiff, Keith and I were able to see a performance of Henry V put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We left the boys in the care of a woman who is a mother, a grandmother, a physician, and a Baroness.  Nothing but the best for our boys!  The play was really well done, and funnier than many versions (like the Branagh film version).  They really played up the fact that Henry V was Welsh and made much of Flewellen, a comic Welsh character, both of which, not surprisingly, played well in Wales.  We got to bed at nearly 11 pm---probably the latest we've stayed up in ages.  "If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek!"

The yolks in the eggs here are a much darker orange and are tastier.  Is that because of the chickens' diet? Are British chickens somehow different (superior)?

I am enjoying some of the British expressions.  I bump into some guy on the street (happens to the best of us; happens to me more than to most) and he says 'oh, sorry luv.'  Now, it wasn't his fault, but what a wonderful response!  I mean, he doesn't love me or even know me but I feel so much better after that encounter than after someone saying "Watch where you're going!"  Even the completely polite, "Excuse me," doesn't have that warmth AND can be said in a lot of tones and various inflections, some of which are quite nasty.  In general, the British are more casual than Americans about throwing around terms like 'luv,' 'dear,' 'darling,' and others.  I'm sure some of these words can be used in snotty tones, but so far I've not experienced it.

It's interesting to see how products we are used to seeing in the U.S. are renamed here.  I'm sure it's because of trademark and export/import laws or somesuch.  Frosted Mini Wheats are called 'Mini Max' and there is a character on the commercial so likeable that Owen actually took a marker to his cereal trying to recreate him.  Goldfish crackers, the old favorite that Grandma always had on hand, are called Finz here.  Conveniently, there is the exact same packaging so the boys can easily pick them out in the grocery store.  It's interesting also to see which products have 'jumped the pond' and which haven't.  No Cheezits.  Dang it.

The other day I passed a restaurant called 'The Proper Hamburger.'  Didn't get a chance to sample, but I am curious just what the Brits would consider PROPER.  I'm guessing there is little relation to the American-introduced Whopper or Big Mac.

I've been thinking about the book I read  and the movie I saw about Julia Child.  Because her husband was in the foreign service, she had to close up house and begin again over and over again.  My moves in the recent years have not been as dramatic, and I'm not a culinary equal by any stretch, but I have had the experience more often than I want of transferring kitchens.  When one is moving across town, things are a lot more simple.  You can take food in a cooler if need be.  When you are moving across the country and your stuff will spend a week on a truck, you have to get rid of everything that can spoil.  When you are moving to another country for 4 months, you have to get rid of almost everything but canned goods.  The experience of trying to gracefully run out of almost everything while still feeding your family is an adventure of which I have had enough.  The experience of building up a new kitchen is much more fun but remembering that it will be closed up again soon puts a damper on the excitement.  I'm happy to say confidently that I will go through most of the things I've bought for this kitchen.  And there will be a few things I'll try to take on the plane...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Tour of Parliament

A Baroness friend of Keith's arranged for us to have a private tour of the House of Lords. Unfortunately they had just gone into recess and most of the chamber was undergoing revamping in preparation for the Queen's address and so we didn't get to see everything. Just seeing the preparations was enlightening. So much has to be changed just for a very short visit from the Queen. All the pathways where she walks have to be carpeted blue. A room on the way from the Queen's robing room to the chamber where she will speak was in the process of being transformed into a pathway flanked by seating for VIPs and family. The robing room includes a royal loo and a trapdoor for escape if a Guy Fawkes-esque plot should emerge.

Some other highlights:

We were in the Westminster hall when our tour guide, a security/policeman named Anthony casually mentioned:  "That's the fireplace of Henry VIII."  Of course, since Westminster Hall was built in the 11th century, it had been the fireplace for many other royals as well.  Currently you can see the arc of what would have been the mantle with stairs going down to what would have been the base.  It's immense, as it would need to be to heat an extremely large hall made mostly of stone.

Originally the hall had wooden beams along its length  but in the 14th century, these were replaced with freestanding wooden arches.  It's still holding up the roof today.  At some point they realized that the aptly-named death-watch beetle had been making a snack of the wood.  There were holes in the wood big enough for a man to crawl into.  These were filled with some sort of metal.  As we looked up at the remarkable ceiling, Anthony pointed out one small segment of wood that had been replaced.  In 700 years!  One small piece of wood had to be replaced!  They just don't make houses like that anymore. 

On the floor of the hall are many brass plaques marking so many historic events.  The trial of Guy Fawkes.  The trial of William Wallace.  The lying in state of Winston Churchill (despite not being a royal), various royals--most recently, the Queen Mum.  Our host told us that when the current Queen dies, she will be the last to lie in state here.  Don't know if that's true.  After the monarchy had been restored sometime in the 17th century, they dug up Oliver Cromwell, who had been dead 2 years, and tried him there.  He mounted little defense and was declared guilty.  Then he (his body) was hanged, drawn and quartered.  Overkill?  Literally.

On display was a large stained glass window that will be presented to the Queen on the Diamond Jubilee and then installed at the very front of Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the parliament building.  Most of the rest of it burned in the late 19th century. "Tally sticks" had been used by the exchequer to keep track of debt.  When a loan was given, a stick was marked in a way to indicate the amount of the loan.  Then the stick was halved and each party kept one.  When the debt was repaid, the sticks were matched and burned.  Once, however, more people were literate and the system moved to paper, there were a lot of tally sticks which needed to be disposed.  Here's Charles Dickens on what happened next; 

"... it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the paneling; the paneling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof."

So, most of the building was re-built in the late 19th century, which makes the chambers a 'new' building, which is hard for my American self to take in.  But then when you look at the stone walls built in the 12th century...well...

Also surviving the fire, under Westminster Hall;  The Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft.  It was completed in the 13th century and is still used for weddings and such.  The incredibly beautiful font, from the 13th C, is still there and still used for christenings and baptisms.  I wish I had been allowed to take a picture.  The chapel itself is fairly small, although ornate, and was used primarily by the royal household and court.  For some time it was used as a stable and other less elevated functions until it was revealed to have survived the big fire and was restored.

Back to the House of Lords.....  Not all of it was burned as we learned when our guide told us that we had entered Henry VIII's nursery.  Around the top of the wall were portraits of Hank and all of his wives.  Not sure when those were commissioned or installed.  I can't imagine Henry himself commemorating wife after wife after they were deceased (she said politely). 

I'm sure there's more, but that's all I've got for now....

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Answering Email

Keith was complaining about how much email he gets, specifically requests for letters or reviews or to speak. He decided to give Owen a chance to answer a few for him. (Specifics have been changed--Owen's answers are verbatim.)

Keith: Owen, can I give a talk on May 25?

Owen looks up from his coloring: That's not possible.

Keith: What if they pay me 500 pounds?

Owen: Well, that's an okey-dokey then!

Keith: Can I give a talk in California right after we get home?

Owen: That's silly!

Keith: Can I go to a meeting in June in Cambridge?

Owen: That's not possible right now.

Keith: What if they pay me a dollar?

Owen:  That doesn't make any sense.

Keith: What if it's important to me?

Owen: Well, that's up to you then. Why are you asking me?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

London Guildhall, part 2

As the last part of the Guildhall tour, we went through an art museum there with lots of HUGE paintings and also several large sculptures. Our guide informed us that the larger-than-life standing statue of Margaret Thatcher was behind plexiglass because at one point a visitor had picked up a guidepost marker and knocked her head clean off! She still inspires quite strong feelings. After our tour through the Guildhall, Keith's friend took us to the office of the police for the City of London (again--this is an approximate square mile in the heart of what is called London). There we met Matt, the policeman and dog trainer, who gave the boys some seriously cool boy time. First he showed us the dogs: Billy the bomb sniffer, and Asa the drug sniffer. These dogs live with him, in his back garden, and come to work with him every day. It's clear that they have a very tight relationship. He let Asa out first. He was a beautiful black lab who immediately started sniffing at the hems of our pants. Since Keith's friend had just given the boys shoulder bags with assorted loot, I joked that hopefully nothing had been planted on them. Thankfully, Asa decided we were all clean. Then we met Billy, an English springer spaniel who was VERY excited to be out and about. He immediately started sniffing the vehicles nearby (we were in an outdoor garage type of area). Billy came and said hi but was totally into the experience of his nose. Once Matt explained how things worked, he put Billy back in his crate and then showed the boys......get ready...bombs! Matt brought out some real C4 plastic explosive and showed us all how moldable it was. The boys had to put on gloves to touch any of this stuff because Matt didn't want their smell to get onto the tools they use to teach the dogs and definitely didn't want to get the smell on them. He made sure we weren't about to travel abroad anytime soon because any dog would fix on them. Matt showed us a model of the bomb that was used in the tube on July 7, 2007. It was a backpack with a reach around sort of tube that had a button on the end. The whole thing was worn on a person's back with the trigger in their finger. One of the bombs was packed with pepper and the other with flour. When I told this to my friend Tracey, she understood why her bags of flour going from England to Ireland got so much attention at airport security. Matt and the boys hid a bit of C4 in the bumper of a truck---completely out view---and then he let Billy out. He put Billy on the lead to let him know he was working and then started him at the beginning of the garage. Very quickly Billy went to the bumper. Matt had told us that he might bark but instead he came up to the spot and then threw his head back over and over, in a very human-like gesture. Basically: It's over here! It's over here! Then he was rewarded with his favorite chew toy. Next, the boys got to hold a real gun--again while wearing plastic gloves. Matt made a show of removing the clip and bullets and instructed them to hold it pointing down at all times. They both remarked on how heavy it was. British police don't carry guns in part because there aren't handguns everywhere. When they have a violent crime involving a gun they can often pinpoint and find the exact gun--often with the help of the dogs. Matt then had the boys take turns wearing police protective gear. The heavy vest went down to their feet and the helmet completely covered their head and shoulders. They looked very proud and fierce nonetheless. Then he showed us special shields with an electrical charge. These are used when the police confront a violent dog but they don't actually shock the dog. They put out a zap and the sound combined with the change in the ozone smell causes the dogs to back off. Pretty sure this was slightly irregular, but the boys each got a turn holding a shield and pushing the button to cause the zap. Matt warns: 'Don't point it at your parents, lads.' Pretty cool afternoon of boy stuff. Finally, Matt gave them each a lapel pin with the police insignia and suggested they wear it when we fly home and show it to the police and dog handlers at the airport. I'm pretty sure my little superheroes in training have got enough fodder for many hours of play and many nights of dreams.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Guildhall, City of London

Through another friend of Keith's we got a personal tour through the Guildhall of the City of London, one of the oldest structures of the city. The story is that Brutus came to London and defeated the two giants of the city, Gog and Magog. Then he shackled them to the gates of the city and left them to defend the city. Inside the Guildhall, we saw statues of Gog and Magog. As Karen said, well, I guess you have your Halloween costumes sorted... The Guildhall was a place for the trade unions (as they were then) to connect and lobby and exert power about the standards of their various trades. There was a set measure of length that anyone could use to measure against. And then, pointed out to me, was another in the metric system --"just so you know we're modern." As our tour guide wittily put it, the building had been 'redecorated by the Germans in 1940.' Since then it's been rebuilt with as much of the original stuff as possible. But someone had forgotten how to make glass so some of the windows, still there, are made from clarified cow horn. How resourceful! He showed us the place where official meetings would happen and where, as he put it, "her madge" would sit and where she would come in, etc. Apparently he's half Scottish and (according to Keith) this is his irreverent poke at the Royals. Later, when I was looking at a painting of a royal gathering, he said: "I think that's Liz One." Of course I immediately thought of Liz Gifford! Liz One to me! Then we went down to the old crypt which was from the 12th Century. It was under a very important building and so no one wanted to dig it up until.....oops! There's that dang Roman Coliseum. Eventually the city came to an agreement with the scholars and archeologists which was that they would excavate a portion of what used to be the coliseum, animate it, and let it stay open to the public. The rest would stay buried under prime London real estate. What we saw when we went down there was really incredible. There were almost holographic images of people wrestling (they chose the more gentle coliseum events to stage) and tiers of seats. When you walk into the room, you hear the sounds of crowds and you walk over hard glass coverings over remains of the actual--the ACTUAL--Roman stones of the ACTUAL Roman walls. AD 47 I'm sorry--I don't mean to be shouting at you. It's just so incredible to be looking at walls that were built thousands of years ago. Built so well, mind you, that we can still look at them! Anyway, my sense of wonder aside... I've seen other Roman remains, by the way, and they have the same affect on me.