A Gresham Society Visit To See The Gresham Music Collection And Other Treasures, The Guildhall Library, 29 November 2016

Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg
Henry Purcell: The Gresham Autograph. Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg

Awesome.

I don’t use that word in the youthful, throw-away sense that I have been known to lampoon elsewhere – click here for an example.

I mean that some of the items I saw this evening really did inspire awe. That rare, tingling feeling at the back of my neck when seeing an especially stunning drama unfolding in an unexpected way, or hearing a wonderful piece of music, or seeing a rare, thought-provoking and/or beautiful artefact.

This was a very interesting Gresham Society outing, albeit so close to Gresham home turf that the word “outing” seems barely appropriate. The Guildhall is just off Gresham Street and around the corner from the old Gresham College; perhaps an “innings” rather than an outing for the Gresham Society.

Anyway, Dr Peter Ross provided a fascinating introduction, explaining the story of the Guildhall Library and its historical collections, of which the Gresham Music Collection is but one. Here is a link to Dr Ross’s Gresham lecture on the subject; more generally detailed but less oriented towards the Gresham Collection than the talk he gave us. Irene, one of our Gresham Society members, was a librarian at the Guildhall Library as a youngster, so she could fill in some details too.

I hadn’t realised the diversity of subject matter contained in the collection. I knew to expect music books and I knew that the Guildhall Collection generally had a massive collection of books about London; my cousin Sidney would have been in his element for those. But also many books on food in the Gresham Collection and fascinating books about travel, inventions and mechanical devices.

After the illustrated talk, Peter then showed us around the many artefacts he had lovingly laid out around the library for us to glance at and (in the case of more robust/less rare items) examine.

Among the most interesting to me, a rare manuscript of Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis, a favourite piece of mine. The rarity of this manuscript is two-fold. Firstly, it is documented as a “grandchild” of an original autograph – those are extremely rare for words of such antiquity and especially so for this work. Secondly, it contains a forty-first part for this forty-part piece.

Several of us wondered how the extra Spem part might have come about. I imagined a much simplified part, to allow a keen but profoundly untalented enthusiast like me to join in the singing. But that is mere conjecture for our “post-factual” era. Perhaps a truthful answer lies in the learned notes (mentioning the Gresham) contained in the version of the score shown in this link – click here.

One very beautiful travel book, Victorian era I should imagine, included a description and illustration of musicians in Aleppo. My slightly cack-handed smart phone image below does not do justice to the picture.

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Coincidentally, Janie and I are going to see Basel Rajoub (a musician from Aleppo) together with his Soriana Project and Wu Man, this Friday at the Wigmore Hall – (Ogblog item on that concert to follow shortly), so this exhibit seemed especially poignant to me that day.

(Janie and I think about Aleppo a lot at the moment. Not many people we know had, like us, the good fortune to visit that beautiful city some years ago – we look at our photos from Aleppo often these days – click here.)

But the highlight of the artefacts was the Purcell Autograph from the Gresham Music Collection. That was the item that really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg
Source: http://www.omifacsimiles.com/brochures/images/purcell_1.jpg

In order to ensure we were in the right mood for the Purcell Autograph, Peter Ross put on some suitable Purcell Music. I didn’t realise until later that he really was playing the music from the autograph we were observing; the contents of the autograph were recorded some years ago and the recording is still available as a CD or download. I have downloaded the album and am listening to it with great pleasure as I write. It can be obtained through Amazon – click here...and other places too no doubt.

Libations and nibbles were available in the lecture room, at a safe distance from the precious books. The Gresham Society people are always delightful company. I believe that the merriment continued afterwards in a nearby watering hole; I needed to retreat quite early having irritatingly accepted an early morning speaking engagement in Southampton the next day. Still, this evening at the Guildhall Library will live long and happily in my memory.

Sheppey by William Somerset Maugham, Orange Tree Theatre, 26 November 2016

I think we booked this because we had booked so little at the Orange Tree of late and because Janie said she’d never seen a Somerset Maugham play. I had to admit that I hadn’t seen one either, although I had read some years ago (and frankly had found them wanting compared with his excellent short stories).

The scenario of this play, Sheppey, Maugham’s last, is straightforward enough. Sheppey is a gentleman’s hairdresser who wins a small fortune in a lottery. The play is set when written, c1933, when the great depression was biting hard for many. Sheppey’s life doesn’t overlap much with the have-nots, but those he does encounter affect him. Sheppey has always thought himself a lucky man despite his relatively modest life; so should his charity begin at home or should he try to spread the benefits of his lucky ticket?

This simple, linear story is well summarised in the play’s Wikipedia entry – SPOILER ALERT – click here. The great Ralph Richardson played the lead in the original production in 1933. I was fortunate enough to see him perform towards the end of his career, in the Double Dealer at the National in 1978, which I shall write up on Ogblog in the fullness of time.

As always, the Orange Tree Theatre has a great resource on the production and play – without spoiler – see here. John Ramm, a fine actor, plays Sheppey in this production.

The play is unduly long, with two intervals, in the 1930s tradition of three lengthy acts. It is hard to cut such plays to one interval numbers, but this play really does labour its way through 2 hours and 50 minutes (including intervals). If Paul Miller needs to persevere with the Orange Tree tradition of early 20th century plays, perhaps he should drop the tradition of “hanging on the playwright’s every word”.

Janie and I lost patience with the piece after two acts, deciding to bail out and take our fabada and solomillos dinner at Don Fernando’s at a more civilised hour.

This is a shame, as Paul Miller deploys his excellent directorial skills on a very talented cast to bring as much life as possible out of this play. He also deftly uses Geff Francis as Sheppey’s boss and Dickie Beau as the prostitute Sheppey tries to help, without ceremony but equally without any indication in the text that the boss might be black and/or that the prostitute might be a man in drag.

Still, this is not a great play, in my view (and in Janie’s). There are reasons why Somerset Maugham’s plays don’t get revived much. They were popular pieces in their day, but tend to seem incredibly dated in style now.

In Sheppey, the characters are a bit one-dimensional and it is pretty easy to see where the story is going. Major plot shifts are foreshadowed so overtly, Somerset Maugham might as well have alerted those shifts with neon signs or tannoy announcements. So when Janie asked me at the restaurant to look up and tell her what happens in the end, there were no surprises for me in the Wikipedia synopsis – above and again – SPOILER ALERT IF YOU – click here.

Of course, the character of Sheppey made me think of my grandfather, who was a gentleman’s hairdresser at the time the play was set and written. I wonder whether Grandpa Lew ever saw the play. My grandmother (who coincidentally, like Sheppey’s wife, had been in service before they married) was dying or recently deceased around that time, so perhaps not.

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Grandpa Lew and Grandma Beatrice

But the play was set in Jermyn Street and performed at the Wyndhams, both within spitting distance of the Piccadilly Hotel where Grandpa Lew worked, so who knows? If he took my eleven-year-old mum with him, I very much doubt if her self-confessed childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would have kept her in her seat for the full three acts.

Brexit The Musical by David Shirreff and Russell Sarre, & NewsRevue, Canal Café Theatre, 17 November 2016

Mauritian Giant Tortoise ...like...so old!
Mauritian Giant Tortoise …like…so old!

I first met David Shirreff many years ago when we worked together on a couple of “financial Armageddon” simulations. I have long wanted to see one of his plays/musicals, but have somehow been confounded by the timing and/or location of the performances.

So when I saw that David was putting Brexit The Musical on at my beloved, local Canal Café Theatre and that one of the show dates was a free Thursday in my diary, I had no hesitation in booking a seat. While I was at it, I also booked to see NewsRevue; might as well while I am there.

The previous week, while playing a real tennis skills tournament teamed with friend Tony Friend – click here to see my piece on that victorious evening – the subject of the Canal Café Theatre and NewsRevue came up, not least because Chris Stanton (formerly of that “parish” and coincidentally an avid realist at Lord’s, as I reported a few months ago – click here) was also playing in the tournament.

“I’m going to the Canal Café Theatre next week, as it happens”, said Tony, “a friend of mine has written a musical…” The coincidence grew when we realised that not only did we both know David Shirreff but we had both booked the same Thursday night to see Brexit The Musical.

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I ate early and walked to the Canal Café Theatre, as I had so often done back in the 1990s, when we used to meet up for writers’ meetings on a Thursday night before watching the show.

Tony and son John were already there when I got to the theatre.

Tony and I swapped “real tennis war stories” from our famous victory in the skills contest the week before and from our match against Middlesex University Real Tennis Club (MURTC) the night before, in which Tony and I had both been part of losing pairs, but pairs who had lost more heroically than MURTC’s losing pairs, hence contributing towards a great MCC match victory; 2.5-2.5 in rubbers, decided in MCC’s favour on net games. Oh boy, John must have been fascinated and impressed.

I was also able to swap my ticket so I could sit with Tony and John during the show.

We had a chat with David Shirreff before and after the performance. It is a good show. Low hanging fruit for humour, of course, Brexit, not least Boris Johnson and Michael Gove as comedic characters. There were some superbly acerbic lines throughout the show.

The dramatic highlight for me was a parody of the three witches from Macbeth (Theresa, Andrea and Amber, presumably) confounding Boris and Gove with their power riddles. The musical highlight for me was the Putin Rap.

Between shows while I was chatting with David and some of his friends, Nick R Thomas (one of our NewsRevue writing gang from the 1990s) turned up, which was a really pleasant surprise. Nick had seen my e-shout-out that I was going that night, happened to be in London that day and thought, “why not?  I haven’t seen the show for 15 years or so…”

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Since 1979…like…so old!

In case anyone reading this is unaware, NewsRevue has been going since 1979. Around about the time the show first went to Edinburgh, in August 1979, I was in Mauritus looking at prehistoric-looking giant tortoises and stuff (see above picture…no, not the ones with politicians’ faces, the other picture). I wrote for the show extensively for most of the 1990s, starting in 1992.

In 2004, NewsRevue was awarded a Guinness World Record for the longest running live comedy show. It has been described as The Mousetrap of live comedy. You can read more about it by clicking here.

Nick blagged his way onto my table, where we were joined by a very perky and friendly young couple who had never seen the show before. “Have you seen the show before?” they asked us. “Hundreds of times”, we replied, explaining our connection with the show.

Realising how young they were, I suggested that, scarily, Nick and I might have been writing for the show before they were born. The young man politely replied that he was a toddler back then, while the young woman remained silent, confirming my fears. I think the young couple probably saw me and Nick as curious antique creatures, a little like…me looking at centuries-old Mauritian giant tortoises all those years before.

We really enjoyed the show. The Trump opening number was an “orthodox” medley of Queen songs, well put together. A “Corbyn Man” number to the Willy Wonka “Candy Man” song was good, as was a version of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen; Len singing his regret that no-one listens to his recording of the song.

There were some excellent quickies and short sketches. I especially liked the customer complaining about their Galaxy Note 7 catching fire, with the gormless shop assistant misconstruing each danger/complaint adjective as slang praise for a wonderful device.

Ed Balls singing and dancing a “Gangnam Style” parody was excellent, as was a superb rap, the origins of which were beyond me, but the lyrics and delivery were superb. But despite those two numbers, most of the songs used as the basis of the show seem to be stuck in the choices we used to make in our era; musical numbers and pop songs from the 1960s to 1980s.

Sadly, the closing number broke the second law of NewsRevue songs, which is Do not use “I Will Survive”.  (The first law being Do not use “YMCA”.)  Still, given the way the world is right now, the use of I Will Survive might be forgiven. Indeed, come to think of it, what with Brexit and Trump, those financial Armageddon simulations David Shirreff and I did years ago might come in handy. But I digress.

I was most taken by the response of the NewsRevue audience, not least the young couple at our table. In fact the whole audience (mostly younger folk) seemed thoroughly thrilled by their evening. It was heartening to see that the formula still works after all these years and can all-but fill the Canal Café Theatre on a cold, wet but thoroughly enjoyable Thursday evening.

A Ponder On Dystopian Comedy Songs, 17 November 2016

Ahead of seeing Brexit The Musical and NewsRevue today – click here for my write up of those – I had arranged to meet neighbour, writer and old NewsRevue pal Jasmine Birtles on my way back from the gym, to hand over some of our corporate gimcrack as giveaways for some charity do of hers.

On the way to the gym, the superb Randy Newman song “Political Science” popped into my head and wouldn’t leave.

Here and below is a link to a YouTube vid of Randy Newman performing the song – the lyrics are there too.

I have subsequently worked out how to play this song on my baritone ukulele. It seems to me that the song summarises Donald Trump’s foreign policy as we currently understand it in November 2016.

I mentioned this song to Jasmine as we walked around the block together. She said she vaguely remembered the Randy Newman song but wasn’t there a Tom Lehrer one with a similarly dystopian/armageddon quality.

The Lehrer one didn’t pop into my head immediately, but while walking to the Canal Café that evening it did pop into my head. So Long Mom (A Song For World War III). I remembered not only the Tom Lehrer song itself but my 1993 parody of the same – all linked and shown if you click here.

Now I can’t get either tune out of my head. Happy days.

On a slightly less dystopian note, I also now recall that I used a Randy Newman song, Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear, to parody Tony Blair in NewsRevue surprisingly early in his political career – April 1993 – here is a link through to my materials on that.

Too School For Cool, Edward Alleyn Club Dinner, 12 November 2016

Them Good Old Boys
Them Good Old Boys

Formal school alumni dinners are not really my kind of thing, nor are they Janie’s kind of thing. Indeed, both of us have managed to reach a fairly ripe (if not actually old) age without ever having attended such an event.

Until this event.

This event was going to be different. Why? Because Chris Grant was the President of the alumni club this year and he wanted to make the event different. In any case, you turn up to events like this to support your friends when it is their gig.

The first I heard of the matter was the evening back in January when a gang of us gathered at Z/Yen to experience Rohan Candappa’s wonderful monologue, “How I Said F*** You To The Company…” and have a curry afterwards – click here for the Ogblog piece on that evening.

I explained to Chris that I don’t do weekend stuff without Janie, but that notion only reinforced Chris’s view that this year the dinner should be different and that he would actively encourage people to bring their partners.

To add to the “making it different” motif, Chris engaged Rohan to write and perform a short monologue for the pre-dinner reception. Chris also asked David Wellbrook to act as Master of Ceremonies for this additional feature.

The long and short of it was, I ended up being a bit of a cheerleader for the event amongst our generation – although it was naturally down to John Eltham to act as gang-leader for those of us from our era to book and sit as a gaggle.

We’re On Our Way

Janie (aka Daisy) in frock
Janie (aka Daisy) in frock
Ian (aka Ged) in a state of tux
Ian (aka Ged) in a state of tux

It seemed strange arriving at the school gates with Janie, but we had the good fortune to run into John Eltham and Steven Butterworth as we were walking in. The pre-dinner function was in a new Edward Alleyn Building, which didn’t exist when I last visited the school, many years ago.

Our rabble-rousing had born fruit, so I chatted briefly with several people from our era; David French, Paul Driscoll, Nick Jarmany, Nick James, Tim Moulson, Tim Church and several other people at that reception.

Rohan’s Bit

Rohan’s short monologue was good fun. A meander around the theme “South London, Nah Nah Nah”. The talk included some navel-gazing around the word south itself. Should it be pronounced “sarf” or “sowf” rather than “south”, for example. Is it merely convention that south is shown below north – after all, the world is a globe? Rohan’s conclusions or central theses (I am truly bigging up this talk, aren’t I?) were that:

  • South London is an edgy underdog that deserves our affection and support, even if some of us have long since migrated north,
  • we Alleyn Old Boys (at least the cohort from our era) formed exceptionally strong bonds of friendship which have kept us together and/or brought us back together across many decades and in some cases vast geographical spread.

Rohan teased us throughout his talk about a blue joke that David Wellbrook wanted to tell, much against Chris Grant’s better judgement. Rohan then nearly told the joke through audience participation, but concluded that South Londoners do not need to be told the punchline of the joke; they are edgy enough to work it out for themselves:

What do we want?

A cure for Tourette’s.

When do we want it?

If you want to read Rohan’s wonderful piece in full, he has kindly agreed to its wider circulation and it is therefore Ogblogged as a guest piece in its own right  – click here.

The Dinner Itself

Then across to the school dinning room for the dinner. It seemed strange to be fine dining in that place, all done up to look sprauncy. Chris had chosen a very imaginative meal, based around curry, to symbolise the friendly informal meet ups that invariably end with a curry.

But this was a posh curry-based meal. A starter of slightly spicy scallops, enough to tell you that the meal was posh, that being the first of three interesting courses. Then cheeses, then coffee and petits fours. A well posh curry-based meal.

There were several toasts, speeches and club business in-between, mostly based on the traditional/regular/formal format of the club, I suppose.

Janie and I were honoured and indeed privileged to be seated next to Sir Nigel Godfrey. Sir Nigel, apparently, has recently received a gong for services to the New Zealand beauty pageant industry.

Ged and Sir Nigel Pontificating Nicaragua
Ged and Sir Nigel Pontificating Nicaragua

Sir Nigel was wearing his Broach of Honour with pride that evening, but sadly he seemed to keep it covered up whenever Daisy was nearby with her camera. Perhaps he thought she might swipe the bauble if he left it unguarded even for a moment. How does he know that Daisy is such a scallywag?

Our table rapt with attention as Sir Nigel orates. Mr Wellbrook taking electronic notes, presumably
Our table rapt with attention as Sir Nigel orates. Mr Wellbrook taking electronic notes, presumably

Daisy was also sitting next to Mr Wellbrook, who had been Master of Ceremonies earlier. I asked Chris Grant, “what did Daisy and I do to deserve the honour of sitting next to Sir Nigel and Mr Wellbrook?”, but I think Chris must have misheard my question, because he merely said, “there’s always one short straw”, which seemed to me to be an answer to an entirely different question.

Then Chris Grant made a short but touching and excellent speech, continuing the themes of edginess and especially the theme of enduring friendship.

The audience was then subjected to the Headmaster’s Savage response…

…correction…I never was much good with grammar, I should have paid more attention in English lessons…

The audience was then subjected to the Headmaster, Dr Savage’s, response. Dr Savage seemed keener on the friendship theme than the edgy theme. That is understandable really. Can you imagine the mischief that might kick off in the school and end up with pupils sent to the Headmaster’s Study, only to get the phrase thrown back by the miscreant, “but Sir, you told us that it is a good thing for us to be edgy”?

Dr Savage spoke very well and quite wittily, although I did think he missed a golden opportunity to pun on the pronunciation of Suffolk (from whence he hails) and Southwark, the borough in which he now heads a school. After all, the two place names, at least when pronounced by a native of the latter, are indistinguishable. (I think he might have been trying to make such a joke, but he got a bit confused and mentioned Norfolk, for seemingly no reason.)

In short, Savage is a talented speaker who prepares diligently, but he lets himself down at times through hurried delivery and under-rehearsal of the humorous lines. A-, could do better than this.

There is an official report and deck of photos for this event on the Alleyn’s School site – click here.

And Then Home

We thoroughly enjoyed our evening. Janie found the company delightful, both the old boys and their wives/companions, such as Lenneke (Chris’s partner) and Emma Jane Moulson. Similarly, I enjoyed chatting briefly with those two and at greater length with Victoria (Oliver Goodwin’s partner) as well as chatting with old school friends.

My only regret is that I barely got a chance to chat with some people I would have very much enjoyed catching up with properly, such as David French, Paul Spence and Nick Jarmany. Perhaps next time, although I hope our next time is a less formal gathering.

Next morning, there was no respite. Daisy and I got up to play tennis in our usual Sunday morning slot. Half way through the game, I realised that I had subconsciously donned a purple top and a purple bandanna. Purple. The Cribb’s House colour. Steeled by my renewed sense of tribal purpose, I naturally went on to win the set.

You can take the boy out of Cribbs House, but you cannot take Cribbs House out of the boy.
You can take the boy out of Cribb’s House, but you cannot take Cribb’s House out of the boy.

South London Nah Nah Nah by Rohan Candappa, Alleyn’s School, 12 November 2016

The following piece, South London Nah Nah Nah, was written and delivered by Rohan Candappa at the Edward Alleyn Club Annual Dinner 2016, in honour of Chris Grant’s Presidency coming to an end. I Ogblog reviewed the event here.

Chris Grant. This image was liberated from the Sport England web site with grateful thanks - we're SO South London.
Chris Grant. This image was liberated from the Sport England web site with grateful thanks – we’re SO South London.

Rohan has kindly permitted the circulation of the piece. If you quote from it, please give Rohan Candappa the credit – he deserves it.

Thank you Mavis.

Recent events have proved to me that the two most important things in this world are ‘words’ and ‘geography’. I’ve always known this as I’m a writer, and I studied ‘geography’ at university.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking ‘what on earth is this fool on about?’ I mean, you’ll probably give me words, but ‘geography’?

Okay, let me prove my point, consider this sentence ‘2016 will always be remembered as the year in which a popular black president stood down, and was replaced by an idiot’.

Oh. Maybe I should have said ‘2016 will always be remembered as the year in which, IN AMERICA, a popular black president stood down and was replaced by an idiot.’

Words and geography. Make all the difference.

Anyway, I’m a writer, and what I’m going to do is read some stuff out to you. And the way I’m rationalising the kind of performance that I’m developing  – is that I’m having a thought, and then taking it for a walk.

And I’d like to invite you all on that walk. To see where we end up.

But before I do ….David, you didn’t tell the joke. I thought you were going to tell the joke….

That’s a shame. It was a good joke.

Okay, a slight aside. When we first got together to discuss this evening David told a particular joke, and we all laughed, and then Chris said we can’t use it.

Probably because it was in poor taste. Or politically incorrect. Or both.

Now, obviously I can’t tell the joke because I am too sensitive and well mannered – but it was good joke…

So here’s what I suggest you do, over the course of the evening, go up to David when he’s on his own and say ‘What do we want?’, he’ll say something, then you come back with ‘When do we want it?’ and he’ll deliver the punch line.

That’s alright isn’t it David?

Anyway moving, on.

I’ve got a piece to read, take about 15…hours. No, minutes, minutes. I know you’re hungry.

So let’s have a thought, and take it for a walk, and see where we end up.

 

——————

 

It’s funny what we remember.  It’s not always what other people remember.

Take this evening.

When Chris first started talking about it he brought up the following incident.

When we were at school the football team made it to a final. The final was held at the ground of Dulwich Hamlet. And during the match, there was a point, or there were several points where we, as supporters of that well known Sarf Lunnun football firm of ‘Alleyns’ started chanting ‘South London, Nah, Nah, Nah!’

Then, apparently, when we got back to school, our behaviour in chanting this chant was berated by Mr Fenner, the Head Master, in no uncertain terms.

And, in part, this incident is what Chris has based his theme for his year as President.

Now the thing is, I was at that match. I was in that crowd. And I have no recollection of the ‘South London, Nah, Nah, Nah’ chant happening.

So it’s funny what we remember, because what we remember, isn’t always what other people remember.

But that’s the glory of being alive. We are individuals. We see the world and interpret the world individually. But we live collectively. And part of our challenge as individuals is to find a way to live collectively.

That’s one of the thing school does for us. In part, in this place, within this school, I learned how to be an individual, but also to function as part of a society. And that played a big part in forging my identity. And I guess I’m not alone in that, or why else would we all be here?

So if a school is a key factor in defining personal identity, which it is, – then what defines the identity of a school.

And does the fact that this school, my school, our school, is in South London have any bearing on that identity?

But before we get to a decision on that, let’s consider the whole concept of ‘South’.

For a start what does it even mean?

Well, that’s fairly obvious – it’s a direction. It’s one part of that set of directions that helps us navigate the world, helps us locate ourselves in the places we live. North, South, East, West. The John, Paul, George and Ringo of directions.

Or, and who else remembers this – Naughty, Elephants, Squirted ….. Water.

South was ‘Squirted’.

Look at a map of the world. Look at a globe, and ‘south’ is, the bit at the bottom. Everyone can agree upon that.

Everyone that is, except me.

Thanks to the power of independent thought that this school encouraged in me, I have stumbled upon this, quite literally world changing, revelation:

The world is a sphere. It floats in space.

There is no right way up for it to be. Given that, then what’s to stop ‘South’ being located at the top?

The only thing to stop it is convention.

Or picture a map of Britain. Well, why don’t we ever draw it, or imagine it, upside down? After all, it exists on the surface of a globe, and a globe is a sphere, and a sphere doesn’t have a top or a bottom.

So ‘south’ is a convention that we have invented, that we all agree upon, because if we didn’t agree on it how would we ever know where we truly are.

But let’s go further in this dissection of the concept of south. Let’s go further because one of the glories of the English language is that words don’t only have ‘meanings’ they also have associations.

So ‘south’ isn’t just a direction.

Things ‘go south’. Meaning they go off the boil, they fall apart.

Or there’s the concept of ‘The South’ in America – the Southern states, all confederate flags, slave owners mansions, and fried chicken.

Or that divide between Europe’s northern states, and its southern ones. That’s a concept wrapped up in all kinds of sub-concepts of power, economic development, even life-style.

Or what about Cockney rhyming slang. North and South. Mouth.

Or, let’s get even more granular – how do you even pronounce the word. Is it ‘South’? Is it ‘Souf’ as in S O U F? Or is it ‘Sarf’ as in S A R F?

I guess the answer to that depends on where you’ve come from.

Or, where you’ve ended up.

For me, as a kid, growing up just off Peckham Rye Park. I lived in S A R F, Sarf Lunnun. Lunnun, as in L U N N U N.

Now I’m older, and wiser, and much stupider, I will say that I grew up, and went to school, this school, in South London.

Clearly the school is still in the same place that it was. So equally clearly it must be me that has moved. In some way.

Anyway, delving deeper into the whole concept of South London, I discovered something really quite surprising. For most of the time South London did not exist.

London, was London, and that was north of the river. The bit to the south was an afterthought, an overspill, a poor relation.

I mean, just look at the buildings in north London. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, The Tower Of London, The Natural History Museum, St Paul’s, even the City Of London itself. It’s all north of the river.

What do we get? The short lived County Hall. Southwark Cathedral – which is just a very big church. And Dave Wellbrook’s house in Beckenham.

This isn’t the stuff of a major Metropolis.

South London wasn’t London.

So the pre-Uber, cab drivers legend of ‘ Sarf of the river, this time of night, you ‘avin’ a larf mate…’ isn’t an aberration. It’s how the world was. How the world was perceived.

South London was the wrong side of the river, south London was the Badlands, south London was ‘Here be Monsters’.

And you know what, South London Doesn’t Care. If it is the outsider, the underdog, the unacknowledged that’s just fine. Because that gives South London character. Strength. Maybe even ambition.

And it meant things could happen here.

Take Vauxhall, for instance. From about 1650 for 200 years it was one of the leading venues for public entertainment in the capital. 1785 the Vauxhall Gardens opened with attractions like tightrope walkers, concerts, fireworks, hot air balloon ascents and wooded walkways noted for… ‘romantic assignations’. Apparently, for 150 years, references to Vauxhall were as ubiquitous as, and have the same context as,  references to ‘Broadway’ would later be. That was it’s cultural significance.

Or what about something with closer link to this school – The Globe. Shakespeare’s theatre, built in  1599 – closed by the Puritans in 1642. The Globe was at Bankside. The south side of the river.

The south, the outsider, the renegade, the challenger to the old order.

Or what about the founder of this school – Edward Alleyn. Yes, he was established, yes he was successful, yes he was wealthy. But he was an actor.

And acting, I would argue, is the South London of all the professions.

The outsider, the renegade, the risk-taker.

And isn’t that a perfect description of arguably the most creative person this country has produced in the last 100 years.

David Bowie was born in Brixton. He moved to Bromley. He is an individual born, and bred, and buttered, in South London.

So how does all this relate to this school? This institution?

I mean, look at it. It is a place of privilege. How on earth could it be the outsider, the other, the renegade?

Well, in my opinion, it can. Or at least in a sense it can.

Because we did come late to the party. God’s Gift had been given to many, many people before the first brick of this school had been laid.

We always were the outsider, the other, the renegade because we were not Dulwich College. So guess that what I’m arguing is that in this particular small universe, with its own particular laws of physics, and gravitational fields, I’m arguing that Dulwich College is North London, and we, we being Alleyn’s – is South London.

We are the outsider, the upstart, the challenger.

And that might sound like an irrelevant, contrived, spurious notion, but I think that it’s an important one. And one that isn’t just about looking backwards, but also about looking forwards. And here’s why.

I’ve said that this is a place of privilege – and it is. I’ve seen how much the school has developed since I was an inmate. I look at the academic results and have an absurd, totally unjustified sense of pride.  I mean what’s it got to do with me?

I know that anyone would be lucky to come here. In so many ways it bestows advantages on its pupils. Or confirms the advantages those pupils already have.  And I don’t mean that as a political judgement, I mean it as an observation.

But I think, embrace the concept of Alleyn’s as a South London school – with south being a construct that contains within in it ideas of being the outsider, the other, the renegade – then there is something else that comes into the mix for the school’s pupils.

Yes, advantage is an advantage for young people trying to find their way in an increasingly, and insanely, competitive world.  But I believe that if you want to get on, if you want to really push the boundaries of what you have it in you to become, then what you need is not advantage, but edge.

North London doesn’t give you edge. South London gives you edge.

And that’s why I would argue that the fundamentally South London nature of this school is worth recognising, understanding, and celebrating. It’s a part of its heritage as much as the phrase ‘God’s Gift’, or the cornflower, or that time Mr Jenkins got pushed in the swimming pool on the last day of term.

——————

Now, I mentioned at the start that I would be having a thought, and taking it for a walk, and what I’ve discovered is that when you do that you sometimes spot something off the path you’re on that’s worth checking out.

And what I spotted, on this occasion, was the phrase ‘God’s Gift’.

Now ‘God’s Gift’ is the motto of the school, the foundation. The first time I was really aware of it as a pupil, and thought about it, it felt slightly uncomfortable. That’s because it sounded, to me, arrogant. It sounded like we, the pupils, were saying we were ‘God’s Gift’.

There was also the fact that, at the time, the only other awareness I had of those words was in the disparaging phrase ‘He thinks he’s God’s Gift, to women’.

It was a put down.

But, I also knew that the phrase in the motto was actually referring to ‘education’ – education was God’s Gift.

Anyway, writing this piece I was thinking about the phrase and I have come to the conclusion that it needs redefining. Re-imagining.  So I want to give it a context that makes sense to me. And maybe it’ll make sense to you.

I’m here tonight because Chris asked me to speak. This is not an event I have ever been to before. It never really appealed. But Chris asked me to come. And Chris is my friend.

And I thought about that.

And I realised that gift I received from this school wasn’t education. I would have got an education somewhere else. We all would.

The gift I received from this school was the friends I made while I was here. So John, Steve, Nigel, Ian, Olly, Chris, David. I’ve known all of you for the best part of forty years – you’re the gift. Thank you.

And I would imagine for others of you in this audience, who had the good fortune to go to this school, and also for those who have the good fortune to work here, the same holds true. This school has been, this school is, a crucible of friendships. And we forge bonds here that are hard to break.

I know that for a fact, because I’ve known these people for 40 years – and I’ve been trying to shake them off for at least 35. But they’re persistent…

We forge bonds here that are hard to break. And I would say to the headmaster, nurture that, cherish that, celebrate that. There is no exam results table that it features on, but to my way of thinking it paints a picture on a far bigger canvas. And it’s a beautiful picture.

Now I’ve wandered off the path for too long and need to find a way to get back to my central thesis and wind things up.

The central thesis being that Alleyn’s is a South London school, and that gives it, and its pupils, an edge.

Well if the concept of ‘South’ is all about being the outsider, the other, the renegade – if it’s all about not only about having an edge, but also, occasionally, going to the edge and jumping off. Doing the thing you’re not supposed to do, just to see what happens next, then there is only one logical place for me to finish this talk.

So here’s the joke Chris didn’t want us to tell…

 

Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy, 11 November 2016

Abstract Expressionist Gromit
Abstract Expressionist Gromit

We’d both been really looking forward to seeing this exhibition, without quite getting around to seeing it; prioritising other “more urgent” things, as th Abstract Expressionism is running until January and as a member Janie can get us in any time.

We had booked out the time to see the exhibition on this day and were quite determined to see it, although with Janie feeling poorly the day before, I was half expecting us to defer the visit yet again.

But Janie woke up on this Friday feeling better and was keen to go ahead with the visit after getting some other bits and pieces out of the way.

Naturally, it was quite late by the time we set off for the Royal Academy, which actually worked out well with the late night opening. No congestion charge, no parking charges and a reasonably clear run around Mayfair/Piccadilly.

The Royal Academy has a good resource on this show with some very good examples – click here.

We both really liked the show, without necessarily liking all the work. Barnett Newman has always left me cold and I was not so impressed by the David Smith sculptures. This is big, “wall space” art in truth.

Reviews are a little mixed:

We thought the show worked very well as a whole. Very colourful. Also very interesting, as we were familiar with some of the works and artists but not really on the Abstract Expressionists as a school. We suspect that many non-expert visitors shared our sense of enjoyment along with the sense that we learnt something too.

Janie was convinced that Cy Twombly should have been in there, even asking one of the shop attendants to look Cy up for her and then explain why Cy was absent. It transpires that Twombly’s work is later, modern romantic symbolism, not abstract expressionism. Bad call, Janie.

Romantic Symbolist Madonna and Child
Romantic Symbolist Madonna and Child

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection, Tate Modern, Then On To A Z/Yen Alumni Drinks Gathering At The Phoenix, 9 November 2016

Tate Modernist Selfie
Tate Modernist Selfie

As a Tate Modernista, Janie gets invited to previews and we are keen to take advantage of those when we are able. For that reason, we had booked out this particular afternoon, which also turned out to be the one date that worked for several Z/Yen alumni for a gathering.

It wasn’t complicated; we decided to combine both, making the timing of the Tate Modern visit fit nicely into that late afternoon slot.

So we worked in the morning and over lunchtime, then met up at the Tate Modern around 15:30 to see The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography From The Sir Elton John Collection – click here for details.

It is an eclectic but fine collection; I very much enjoyed seeing the many Man Ray and André Kertész examples (I’ve long been a fan of theirs), but was also especially taken by the Dorothea Lange portraits, which I thought were especially good and with which I was not so familiar.

Then on to The Phoenix on Throgmorton Street, via the office. When we arrived, Linda was worried that it might just be we three, but I think she was just fretting a little because one or two people had to drop out at the last minute. Steph, Mary, Richard, Elisabeth and Christiano all turned up, which made a good size of group.

Janie and I didn’t stay all that long; Janie had booked early work for the next morning and was starting to struggle a little with a niggling abscess. So I took her home, cooked some pasta with one of Alistair Little’s ragus and put the wee bairn to bed early.

 

Unexpected Victory Against The Odds, Mercifully Only A Real Tennis Skills Tournament At Lord’s, 8 November 2016

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Victorious team: David, Tony Friend and Me

I didn’t have high hopes for the real tennis skills tournament at Lord’s. As the rookiest, lowest ranked player in the tournament, my hopes and expectations before the day were based around the avoidance of embarrassment rather than realistic hopes of outright victory.

I have written about real tennis and my “baby steps at the game before – not least in this article – click here.  

The skills required for this skills challenge tournament are stuff that I do very rarely in the heat of battle: hitting the fiendish “winning targets”, setting unfeasibly good chases and getting serves into the right area – the latter determined by a small “Its A Knockout”-style gayly-coloured plastic padding pool – not very Lord’s, that last prop.

To add to the slightly unnerving nature of the event, I discovered that I had been teamed with friend Tony Friend, who probably also expected little once he knew he’d been teamed with me. I e-mailed him a few weeks ago, getting my excuses in early:

I haven’t done skills night before and am not entirely sure what to expect.  Rest assured, at my current level of experience, I am not expecting to find any of the exercises even faintly easy.  But I shall certainly try my best.

He responded with a list of the challenges. I replied:

Excellent, excellent.  I normally do at least one of those things once during my hour…perhaps that wasn’t what you wanted to read.

The coaches at Lord’s tried to reassure me – “sometimes the novice players on the team do as well or better than the experienced players.”  I suspected that they were being kind and/or trying to prevent a drop out.

To add to my sense of foreboding, the third man in our team, David, announced that he hadn’t played for about a year, which I thought probably put the kibosh on any residual hopes I had of being carried by two really good players.

But my negative thoughts were wrong on all of those counts.

Truth is, the skills challenge is wicked hard for all concerned. Not least because many of the skills tested do not often come into the game naturally, so all players, experts and rookies alike, are having to adapt and adjust to the challenges.

One thing our team did right was to agree a rota and relentlessly move around quickly during each challenge to maximise the number of shots we got in each two-minute time-trial round. That practice alone must have upped our chances.

The other thing that went well for us was complementary skills; at least one of us did OK or well on each of the seven challenges. On two of the challenges – lay an excellent chase and force the dedans, all three of us got into a rhythm for a minute or so and clocked up a lot of points in a hurry. I didn’t score as many points as the other two, but I don’t think I scored that far shy of them and certainly pulled my weight as the team rookie.

In short, against the odds, we won by a short head. (Aptronymically, our team had been named “Three-Thirty at Haydock Park”).

But far more than the sweet taste of unexpected success, as usual with real tennis at Lord’s, the whole evening, in particular the company was excellent; a really friendly, pleasant crowd. Naturally, the food and beverage was excellent too – it was at Lord’s after all – a curry night, done very well.

Writing as the presidential polls close in the USA, I’m hoping against hope that our real tennis tournament result is the only major against the odds surprise of the night.

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Did I mention that David, Tony Friend and I were the winning team? I probably should mention that somewhere, just for the sake of completeness.

Luxury Travel Fair, Olympia West and Revolutions Weekender, V&A, 4 to 6 November 2016

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Doesn’t look all that revolting to me.

Janie and I arranged a day off on the Friday (4th) primarily to visit the Luxury Travel Fair.  Conde Nast Traveller Magazine had bunged Janie a couple of freebie tickets and we are seeking ideas for our next trip.

We had also wanted to keep some extra time free for the weekend as the V&A had mysteriously pre-announced that there would be a weekend of activities around the Revolution Exhibition – which we saw in preview a couple of months ago – click here. Janie had chased this up a couple of times but we only got the programme about a week before – still several items looked good.

Here’s a link to that very V&A programme – click here.

I didn’t hold much hope for the travel fair, so wasn’t too disappointed when Janie announced that she needed to get Bill to sort out a problem with the boiler at the house and that first thing Friday was the ideal time. Naturally, that took up the whole morning, so in the end we got to the travel fair around 14:45.

There were a few interesting stands, but on the whole the larger agents had sent their “B” teams to staff the stands and very few of the smaller agents covered holidays that might appeal to us. Cruise anyone? Not us.

So we had bags of time to get to the V&A for the first thing we wanted to see: a movie entitled Louder Than Love by Tony D’Annunzio which was due to be shown at 18:15. We got there about half an hour early, to discover that the movies were running early so that piece was playing to an empty room as we arrived and we caught the last 20-25 minutes of it. Probably got enough out of it that way nonetheless. Roger Daltry and Alice Cooper being the most interesting people from that scene still alive and their interviews were in that last reel.

That timing shift enabled us to see John Lennon “In His Own Write” that same evening. This is basically a performance piece based on John Lennon’s 1964 poetry book of that name. Cartoons too, projected onto a screen. The performers; Jonathan Glew, Peter Caulfield and Cassie Vallance, were all very good. Some of the poems were good; some very silly, some horribly violent. Still, certainly an hour well spent before dinner.

We also saw a small exhibit about Glastonbury and danced for a while in a rub-a-dub stylee to Babylon Uprising. Not quite “Janie and Ian, the only one’s dancing”…but not far off.

Sunday 6 November

After a cold game of tennis at Boston Manor, we went straight to the V&A to see a conversation between Joe Boyd and Nigel Waymouth. We were keen to see this, not least because Joe is a client of Janie’s and I found his book White Bicycles fascinating.

I thought I should try to sport some fitting gear, given our incongruous “just off the tennis court” look, so I wore the tee-shirt Kim had made for me from Janie’s “guru on a camper-van” picture which she used as the 60’s party invite in the spring:

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I also thought I should sport one of my most psychedelic-looking bandannas. It was indeed all in keeping with the subject matter of the conversation, just as I thought, although perhaps not so much in keeping with the way the rather elderly (on the whole) audience was dressed.

We ran into Brian Eno briefly before the session started. I don’t think he stayed for the session, so must have been popping in to see Joe before the start.

At the end of the session Janie asked Joe Boyd a rather penetrating question about commercialism (or rather lack thereof), which I thought was by far the most interesting question (and indeed answer) in the Q&A bit of the event. Whether or not Joe will have anything more to do with Janie after that question is hard to say.  I’ll guess yes.