Friday, 30 September 2011

Indecent exposure - Why can't Londoners dress for the heat?

I arrived back from the States earlier this week filled with gloom.  I had spent the previous few days swimming in the sea, sunbathing by a gloriously cool swiming-pool and dining outside in the dusk.  Grey old London was going to be a shock to the system.  Boarding my return flight, I prepared to layer-up, swathe myself in knitwear and don umpteen pairs of socks.  And then I landed at Heathrow to bright, warm sunshine and found myself a tad overdressed.
London is in the grip of an 'Indian summer'.  (Although frankly this year it's just 'summer', as we're all feeling a little hard done by after a June-August period filled with rain-clouds and wind and a distinct lack of sunshine.)  Becoming increasingly frequent in the UK, Indian summers are periods of unseasonably warm weather during months which traditionally belong to autumn.  Instead of brassy leaves, the first early morning frosts and a slight chill in the air, this meterological hiccup brings warm temperatures, sunshine and often a close humidity.  Oddly however there are none of the balmy, long evenings of summertime, as, despite the heat, the nights are drawing in autumnally early.

The Indian summer also induces sartorial crisis.  Londoners have gone into fashion meltdown in response to the relatively high temperatures as we enter October.  Alas, many of them have equated sun and heat with the beach, and are now attired for an afternoon of sipping daiquiris poolside rather than a day in the office.  Summer wardrobes have been dusted off, or finally retrieved after last year (I was still wearing sheepskin boots in June, for crying out loud), and our streets are now full of the most unsuitable flip-flops, filmsy dresses, strapless tops and tiny shorts.  The most heinous of crimes is committed by those who believe that a little heat is a licence to substitute a bikini top for a bra; deeply inappropriate in the workplace.  And to be honest, it looks ridiculous.  The nearest seaside is a good hour's train-ride away, and I don't imagine many of the people who are pratting around town in little more than what a liberal Victorian might have considered swimwear have any intention of visiting Brockwell Lido, or heading for a dip in Hampstead Ponds.  So what's with the beachwear, people?  No one's asking you to clad yourself in a woollen boiler suit, but could we all find something a tad more seemly in which to sweat out the next few days?  Particularly in an office meeting.  And chaps, removing your shirt to wander around town on your lunch break is just not on.  All that exposed, white flesh fair puts one off one's Pret sandwich.

The really ridiculous fact of the matter is that it's not even that hot.  The thermometer has yet to hit the 30oC mark. (86oF for those who prefer to operate in Fahrenheit.)  Temperatures were similar, if not higher, over in New York City yet New Yorkers continued with life as normal in their suits, trousers and skirts that kept their inner thighs well-hidden.  Could it be that it is merely the novelty of a little sunshine in our city that induces this crazy behaviour rather than the heat itself?   

Friday, 23 September 2011

An Accidental vacation

Apologies, but the Accidental Londoner, after completing the dissertation that has ruined her summer, has retired on holiday to recover and panic about whether she's passed or not!  Hence there will be a short break in posting while I'm away.

I'm currently chilling in New York, doing a bit of reading, writing, shopping and rain-dodging.  If I were a New York blogger, I could have been writing about:

  • Real live puppies for sale in shop windows
  • The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site
  • The glorious Housing Works Bookshop and Cafe
  • How wet one gets here when it rains
  • Just how much there is to see and do in Central Park
  • The exquisite Frick Collection
  • How I could happily live off a diet consisting solely of steamed dumplings from Chinatown
  • The amusing things one overhears on the sidewalk
  • Just how desperately I would love to live here one day 

But I'm not, so enjoy London for me.  I'll be back soon!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

"Everything a fiver": Flower shopping at Columbia Road Flower Market

Gardens are highly sought after in London. Many of us live in upper level flats, where the nearest green space is an inaccessible scrap of grass down below.  Whilst my little flat is not endowed with a garden, my kitchen windows have wonderfully roomy sills.  And this is where I've focussed all my horticultural energy.  A neat little row of terracotta pots now lives on my kitchen window-sills, and so far this summer they've even contributed to my food supply, with some tiny carrots and some less tiny, but reluctant-to-ripen, tomatoes.  But what my sills really need is some colour, particularly as winter feels not so far away.  Flowers were called for, and in London there's just one place to find them - the Columbia Road Flower Market in the East End.  

Running from 8am in the morning until around 3pm in the afternoons the market is a weekly affair, held on Sundays.  By the time the Accidental Ex-boyfriend and I visited, a while back, at 11am the road itself was heaving, and progress along the length of the market was slow.  But there was so much to see, one didn't mind only being able to shuffle slowly between the stalls.  On the approach to Columbia Road one could spot numerous, early-rising flower-shoppers, already heading home, with their arms full of brown paper-wrapped sunflowers and lillies. Shrubs and small trees were being stuffed into the boots of parked cars.  On turning into the road itself, we were met by the sight of a middle-aged man bashing merrily away on a piano on the pavement, his tea-cup resting on the top quivering with every crash on the keys.
Maybe 20 or so different stall-holders display their horticultural wares in the market, each trying to outsell the others.  Prices are almost identical between the sellers, and a popular cry of 'Everything a fiver!' echoes around the road.  There are bedding plants in trays, pots of aromatic lavender, tiny lemon trees, enormous orchids, bulbs, and huge bunches of cut flowers.  Some sellers stick to a particular type of plant - trailers and creepers, edible plants - whilst others seem to have a little of everything.  Some stock ceramic pots and planters, in which your new plants could be happily ensconced.  Next to the delicate flowers and pastel shades the flower-sellers themselves are a somewhat incongruous feature of the market.  Large, burly men, yelling their barrow-boy patter, are surprising experts on how to care for your geraniums and basil plants.  Resisting the urge to buy a pretty sizeable olive tree for a fiver (they weren't kidding when they said 'Everything'!), I scouted some cheery little cyclamen for my window-ledge for a couple of pounds each.

And then we explored a bit.  Tucked behind the market itself, hidden by leaves and stalks, is a picturesque row of shops, selling housewares, art, clothing and cake.  There is a serious lack of coffee venues however, and the one canny purveyor who had noticed this gap in the market had an endless queue out of their front door.  There's even a shop above which sits a real-live cross-stitching fox - look! 
We discovered an off-shoot market of vintage home-wares (from enamel jugs to ancient cake-stands), and a stall selling extremely popular bacon sandwiches, down a street on the corner of which a small swing band strummed and drummed.  We spent a very happy day pottering around the area - excellent coffee, tasty take-away lunch from the market at Brick Lane, window-shopping and market-browsing - with my new flowery purchases, before taking them back to their new window-ledge home.  And very jolly they look there too.  I just hope I manage to keep them alive...!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Foundling Museum: London's children that nobody wanted

On a rainy Sunday, with 12,000 words of dissertation to edit, I was all too delighted when a friend asked if I fancied a wander around a museum.  We ummed and ahhed over which one to go for, keen to visit one of the city's less known museums; after several years in London we felt that we'd pretty much seen all that South Kensington had to offer.  And so we went to Bloomsbury, and visited the Foundling Museum on Coram Fields. 

Housed in a building on Brunswick Square, the Museum tells the story of the UK's first Foundling Hospital (originally built in the mid-to-late eighteenth century), established and funded by an extraordinary triumvirate; sea captain Thomas Coram, artist William Hogarth, and the composer George Frederic Handel.  The museum building contains permanent collections detailing the history of the Founding Hospital as well as some rather wonderful art and a collection of music, and even the last will and testament, of Handel.  This building never actually housed the Hospital - which instead resided within an impressive winged edifice which was sadly sold off and demolished in the late 1920s - however it does contain features from this long-gone building, such as the heavy wooden staircase winding up through the three floors of exhibitions and galleries.  (Although the metal spikes which used to run down its length to prevent 'foundlings' sliding down it have since been removed.)
The original Foundling Hospital
Foundlings were the unwanted children (usually very young, many were just babies) who were abandoned by their mothers, unable to care for them due to their impoverished or undesirable living situations.  Thomas Coram had been horrified to see these children simply dumped on the streets of London by their poor, infirm or wayward guardians, and thus established the Foundling Hospital, to provide these abandoned souls with somewhere to live.  Originally when the hospital first opened places for these poor, unwanted children were so sought after that mothers had to petition the hospital, pleading their impoverished circumstances, to be invited to bring their children in.  Once they had been admitted however their child was still not guaranteed a place.  In a large hall, among similarly desperate individuals, the mothers or petitioners would select a ball from a bag, the colour of which would determine whether their offspring was accepted, shortlisted, or denied a place at the Hospital.

Those who had been successfully secured a place were then handed over to nurses, as their mothers waved a last farewell.  The entry of these foundlings was recorded in a large book, together with a note of what their parent left them.  To identify their child, should their circumstances improve and they find themselves once more able to care for them, mothers left tokens for their children with the Hospital staff; coins, jewellery, pitiful scraps of cloth cut from their own clothes - these were all a woman could leave as identification that once upon a time she had been somebody's mother.  Their children were then given a new name and a new start.

Housed in dormitories and marched through halls (boys and girls kept firmly separate), the foundling children were fed simple, unexciting meals and received healthcare far better than they might if they had stayed with their parents.  The Foundling Hospital inoculated its pupils as standard long before such medical treatments became commonplace.  From the age of 5 or 6 the Hospital became school as well as home.  Pupils at the Hospital were given strict yet not academically taxing lessons, and taught basic skills to secure them equally basic work once they left the establishment at the age of 14 or so.  For girls this meant domestic work, and for boys, more manual skills as well as music, as many went on to join army bands.  Interestingly many pupils went on to join the armed forces, moving from one institutionalised way of life to another.

The Foundling Hospital functioned until 1954, so many of its pupils, who were still called 'foundlings' (and had to wear numbered labels around their necks proclaiming them to be so at all times), are alive today.  The stories of these final pupils have been curated into an excellent temporary exhibition in the basement of the museum, entitled "Foundling Voices".  It is one of the most profoundly moving social history projects I have ever seen.  I say 'seen', but much of the testimony is relayed in aural form, spoken by the foundlings themselves.  Reading the words and seeing the photographs of these individuals, brought up in these strange circumstances one can begin to imagine who they were and what they experienced.  Yet when you hold a small speaker to your ear and hear these people speak of their search for their biological families, and the cruel rejection that some of them faced, you understand how these wide-eyed children became all too quickly acquainted with a feeling of abandonment and an awareness of being unwanted that has stayed with them forever.  Saddest of all they discuss a common inability to bond with other people, discouraged as they were from forming close relationships with their fellow foundlings.  Brought up in this restrictive system, creativity and difference was repressed.  One foundling summed up, just what it was that made me so uncomfortable about the Hospital.
The quote above refers to an institution created to save and care for children, yet which does not seem to have valued the energy and exploration of being a child at all.  Or even of being an individual.  I confess that I found listening to the foundlings discuss how they had struggled to grow up, to develop careers and be part of their own new flesh and blood families desperately sad.  Yet Thomas Coram had created his institution to give children a life, when none looked likely.  Surely this option was better than no home at all.  It is extremely brave to take a stand and to dedicate your energy, not to mention money, to helping others.  The Foundling Hospital, and its current reincarnation as children's charity, Coram, are the proud and worthy legacy of a man who was brave enough to do so.  As with many other philanthropic efforts, there is no perfect solution to many of mankind's worst problems.  But I would rather live in a world where people still search for that solution; taking in stray animals, taking in stray children, digging wells and building schools. The time when no one can be bothered anymore will be a sad day for us all.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel Gallery

As yesterday was the first Thursday of the month, all across East London art galleries stayed open late and the streets were full of art buyers, art viewers and more than a few students who were just there for the free beer.  First Thursdays are a monthly event but with over 100 participating galleries you get to see something new every time. Yesterday I and an Accidental pal wandered along to see a particular exhibition that was on at the Whitechapel Gallery.  Seven figures from the British government have selected their favourite pieces from the government art collection, and currently they hang together in wonderful eclecticism in E1.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Whitechapel Gallery building itself is rather glorious, although you wouldn't necessarily think it from the outside.  A lovely old stone and iron staircase ran up one wall, and doors and wooden partition walls still featured wobbly yet original leaded glass panels.

Behind a display of charity shop porcelain trinkets lies "Government Art Collection: At Work".  The first of five exhibitions in a series on government art, it occupies a single room featuring everything from 16th century paintings of Queen Elizabeth I to peculiar headless metal sculptures.  Who from the government has picked the pieces is almost as peculiar as the artworks they have chosen.  Samantha Cameron, the prime minister's wife (who is not technically 'government' herself, although as the Accidental pal pointed out has to see a lot of the collection on the walls of her home) features heavily, selecting some rather unattractive sculptures.  The favourites of a dame and ambassador to Moscow, with a penchant for vast, slightly lugubrious Bohemian royals, and Sir John Sawers, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, also feature heavily. Nick Clegg chose a rather large painting of a lonesome and dull thermos flask.  Make of that what you will.  SamCam did select a rather nice Lowry to give her her due.  Even some Tracy Emin made it into the exhibition (courtesy of the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey), although frankly her biro-y scribbles look like they may have been created by a bored policy wonk in a tedious meeting.   

Having had our fill of governmental art, and completed an interminable visitor experience questionnaire, we headed out to visit some other galleries, to see rather less prestigious art, fresh from the artist's studio.  We saw an entire show of large technicolour vultures, peculiar paintings of people with felt-tip pens stuck to their faces and the standard array of daubings that could, quite frankly, be anything.  We supped a couple of strong mojitos amid a Cuban launch party for, well we weren't quite sure what, but it was very jolly.  
No photos allowed of the Government Art Collection so here's some paintings and a peculiar sculpture from another gallery on Redchurch Street
After all the art we felt in need of a little sustenance, so headed to the Albion Cafe for supper.  They supplied us with glasses of kir and beer, and tasty, hearty pies of fish and rabbit; although it felt oddly multi-seasonal to eat such wintery food with an open door nearby allowing in the semi-warm night air.  Service was efficient if slightly humourless.  When a bright blue balloon drifted in from the art parties outside our waiter look briefly baffled then placed it solemnly on a shelf along with the ironed napkins. And there it remained as the punters kept coming, and we slipped out and headed home, fortified by pies and Lord Mandelson's fondness for Flemish sculpture.  
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