Diana Darke is an English writer and broadcaster who bought and restored a villa house in the Old City of Damascus some years ago. She talked about the multi-faith, multi-cultural nature of Damascus; we learned that Sunnis and Shias often intermarry in Damascus; those folk are known as Sushis. The old city in Damascus has not been badly damaged in the war, but a corrupt lawyer tried (unsuccessfully) to steal Diana’s house from her. She’s written a book about it – click here – Janie bought the book after the talk.
Zahed Tajeddin is an artist from Aleppo. He bought and restored an old villa house in the old city of Aleppo several years ago. He explained that most of the old city of Aleppo was very dilapidated when he was growing up; his grandparents were the last generation to use those houses as comfortable residences. But a restoration trend had started towards the end of the last century with a few restored and used as restaurants – Janie and I knew about that…
…but Zahed chose to buy and restore one to its former glory and residential purpose. His description of the project and his pictures were, for me, probably the best bit of the talk. Of course Zahed’s house has been severely damaged in the war; many of the neighbouring houses have been completely destroyed.
Both stories were fascinating. Zahed’s story is sadder, but both of the speakers demonstrated incredible courage and resilient determination to overcome their respective difficulties. Incredibly, Zahed has already started restoring his house again.
There wasn’t much time for questions, which was possibly just as well, because the few questions that did come up were a bit daft.
There was however plenty of time for a glass of wine and chat after the talk. Janie got to buy the book and chat briefly with both of the speakers, asking them far more sensible questions than those that came earlier from the lecture hall grand-standers. We met a couple of interesting young people; one young Oxford student who wants to go to Syria as part of her studies and one young Syrian student at SOAS.
A fascinating evening, rounded off with some fine sushi from the Sushi Shop in South Kensington…we’re talking Japanese style fish here, not a Damascene mix of Sunni and Shia people.
So we put this morning aside months ago, even deferring our tennis plans until the afternoon, in the hope that a reasonably early start would avoid crowds and queues.
In the event, Janie slowed down a bit from her original thought to start queuing about 7:30 am (perhaps she wasn’t entirely serious about that one), so we arrived around 10:20/10:25, a few minutes after opening.
Beyond the lobby, visitors are not permitted to take photographs, which is a shame really.
We were shown the stunning architecture and artwork within the building, not least the library and big meeting room on the garden level. Also the large prayer hall and also the social hall, where we were treated to coffee and biscuits.
We met some interesting Ismaili people in the social hall; we chatted for a while, learning more about the Ismaili traditions and discussing world affairs, before Janie and I headed back west to do battle on the tennis court.
I’m not sure I’d seen Fran Erdunast (formerly Weingott) since the build up to my somewhat eventful house party in 1979, but we have been reconnected through Facebook for some time and discovered that we share an enthusiasm for cricket, not least Middlesex.
Fran likes to go to Middlesex out-ground matches, so we hatched a quasi-plan to meet up at the four-day game between Middlesex & Hampshire at Uxbridge CC late season.
Both the weather and my work commitments seemed to be conspiring against this idea, but the forecast for the afternoon of 13 September was, in the end, rather encouraging (sunny with a small chance of showers) and I realised that we should get to see a few hours of cricket at Uxbridge between my morning meeting and the early evening wine tasting in Southwark.
That was the plan…
…and the early part of the plan worked. I got to Uxbridge just before the start of play after lunch and saw a figure who was unmistakably Fran sitting conveniently near to the Gatting Way entrance. She introduced me to Simon, who turns out to be equally keen on county cricket, albeit a Yorkshire supporter (he hails from Leeds). They had arrived about 5 minutes ahead of me and were sorting out some well-appointed seats for the three of us.
After two or three overs, we felt a few spots of rain, which seemed to send the umpires into a tizzy and the players all came off, much to the disgust of the tiny crowd.
“I think the umpires and ground staff must know something we don’t”, I said, suggesting that we head for the pavilion before the deluge.
Deluge it was. Lashings of proper, wet rain, for about 20 minutes or so.
I was even more ludicrously dressed for slogging through the sludge of Uxbridge CC after the rain. I rolled up my trousers to avoid mud on suit misery. Jeff Coleman threatened to take my picture for the Middlesex or MTWD website, which I actively encouraged, as I thought it must look very funny, but Jeff kindly relented in the interests of my dignity.
On the way back to the slightly less soggy patch where our seats were now drying in the sun, I decided to have my one “Thatcher” 99 Whippy ice cream of the year, offering to treat Fran and Simon, who both declined politely.
Fran described the intricacies of the dental work she does while I ate the ice cream, presumably to ensure that I was not tempted to try any further sweet treats that day. Simon tried to avoid fainting during this conversation. I tried to put Simon at his ease by admitting to being squeamish when Janie talks about some of the intricacies of her podiatry work, at which point Fran demonstrated her considerable medical knowledge by explaining the difference between mouths and feet. When Simon and I both showed signs of imminent fainting, Fran stopped talking about medical procedures.
We watched the ground staff try to remove ludicrous quantities of surface water from the pitch, ably assisted by Angus Fraser and even some of the players. The efforts looked futile and indeed after about 30 minutes of sunshine and hard labour, the umpires came out and concluded that it would be impossible to get anything going again today.
Fran kindly invited me back to her place in Pinner along with Simon for some tea. It would be a chance to continue our chat about the good old days, cricket and cricket in the good old days, which is exactly what we did.
Fran hardly seemed to have changed in the decades since we last met. I am consistently surprised when I reconnect with friends from my teenage years how little they have changed in essence. Fran articulated it well in a note later that day:
…bemused by the surreal vision of grown up Ian Harris sitting on my sofa…[t]he 16-17 year old version I last saw kept reappearing ghost-like during the afternoon.
16:30 came around ever so quickly and Fran very kindly insisted on taking me to Pinner station, worrying that I might otherwise be late for my 18:00 wine tasting. Indeed, by the time she had picked a couple of pears from her garden for Charley The Gent Malloy to sample next week (I’ll report back on how the Pinner Conferences go down with pear specialist Charley), even I thought I might have cut it a bit fine for Southwark.
I had forgotten how quick the Metropolitan Line is and hadn’t thought about Southwark, on the Jubilee Line, being a simple hop of a change from the Met line. Once I entered Pinner Station, of course, my brain went back onto automatic from all those visits out that way in my youth, to see Simon, Caroline and others at the Pinner club.
Still, I was surprised when I emerged into the Southwark sunshine at 17:20, a full forty minutes early. Time for a coffee and (sorry Fran) another somewhat sweet treat for fortification (pain au raisin).
Then to the Mousse wine tasting, which this time was on Lebanese wines. Janie arrived only a tiny bit late…
…but much earlier than this photo which Janie took quite a bit later in the evening:
My favourite wines from the Mousse wine tasting evening were a couple of the Massaya ones; Le Colombier (entry level but very gluggable) and the Silver Selection wine which I thought was cracking good. I also really liked the Marsanne-based Hermitage white which Helen served by way of comparison. I have never been much taken with the Lebanese whites, whereas Leb red can hit the spot more often than not.
Janie’s attempts to photograph several of us by asking us to look natural were naturally more likely to fail than succeed. The picture above was the best of the bunch. If you want a laugh at the rest, feel free to click through here.
Helen always gathers an interesting, eclectic crowd for her wine tastings, so you don’t just learn a lot about wine, you do so in very agreeable company.
Janie and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening, which we rounded off with Maroush shawarmas and a bottle of Asti Spumante. (OK, I made up that last bit).
To Islington for a Dedanists’ Society fundraising event to raise funds for the The British Real Tennis Academy.
The event was held at The Estorick Collection…
...housed in a Georgian villa set in its own garden. The galleries and garden will be open to all. On show will be a new exhibition of the graphic designs of Franco Grignani (art as design 1950-90) and the gallery's standing collection of early 20th century Italian art.
Janie took most of the photographs. The tale of the evening is mostly well-told in pictures.
Toni Friend (not to be confused with her realist/dedanist/husband Tony Friend) joined us for the evening, which was most enjoyable.
Actually we spent the first hour or 90 minutes of the evening not looking at the art at all – the evening was blessed with fine late summer weather, so we spent plenty of time early evening in the garden chatting with Dedanists – many of whom I know from the short time I have been playing real tennis. An interesting and pleasant group of people for a party.
There was fizz and some very tasty nibbles – prosciutto wrapped around grissini sticks and some buffalo mozzarella with tomato nibbly-things to help soak up the grape juice.
After surveying the galleries and chatting with people some more, we ventured back into the garden after dark, to find the look of the exterior of the house and the garden even more magical in artificial light. The last few photographs, which we took just before we left, show that magical quality
Janie, who would have loved to have seen the show, felt that she couldn’t free up the day.
Still, I learned that there were to be several old muckers from Alleyns in Edinburgh that day and also that Marie and Joe Logan (the former being a Z/Yen alum) would at least be able to join us for lunch.
Marie and Joe’s application to become honorary school alumni for the day was unanimously accepted, especially when the gang discovered that Marie is a close friend of Linda Cook’s, as Linda had organised the Z/Yen Board Room gig.
But, when Marie inadvertently mentioned “Old Alleynians” in correspondence, I felt obliged to explain:
…there is one really important point you need to get right.
You are each an honorary Alleyn’s Old Girl/Alleyn’s Old Boy (respectively). Neither of you is in any shape or form an Old Alleynian, honorary or otherwise. Old Alleynians are alumni of Dulwich College, the pathetic, rival school of Alleyn’s.
Let me illustrate with well-known examples:
Alleyn’s Old Boy – Jude Law;
Alleyn’s Old Girl – Florence (and the Machine) Welch;
Old Alleynian – Nigel Farage.
Need I say more?
Mercifully there was no unpleasantness in the alumni-confusion-department on the day.
So I rose about 4:30 (a bit earlier than necessary in truth), setting off on an early flight from Heathrow (thank you, Janie, for the lift all the way to Terminal 5) and then took the tram into Edinburgh.
In schoolboy mode for a meet up with old school muckers, I got very excited with my smartphone when I realised that there was free wifi on the tram, sending Janie a picture and a sound recording of the Chigley-like tram sounds.
Janie messaged back to say that I’m a big kid.
Then a solo stroll through Edinburgh from New Town to Old Town…
…towards The Counting House…
When I arrived, only Rohan was there – John and Steve were out soliciting trade…for Rohan’s show, readers, control yourselves…
…but soon after I arrived, there was a surprise (to me) arrival – Claire Tooley (now Claire Brooke) – a very pleasant surprise indeed. Even more pleasantly, Claire was able to join us for lunch after the show.
I thought the performance was very good. Rohan hasn’t changed the show much since the pilot, but he has tightened up the script and his delivery has some lovely pauses and nuances that have clearly evolved with practice and experience.
It was a pretty full house, which at 11:00 in the morning on the Free Fringe I reckon is a big win. Certainly there seemed to be little activity for the other morning/lunchtime shows at The Counting House.
The audience was very receptive, I thought, although those who had attended performances earlier in the week thought that the laughter was slower to build that day, but the attentiveness, reaction and laughter as the story built ended up better.
We strolled to Spoon to meet Marie and Joe. Apparently this place is an old haunt of JK Rowling’s, so well suited to an arty gathering.
Like a fool I neglected to take any pictures in Spoon, but we gathered as nine: me, Steve Butterworth, Rohan Candappa, Paul and Cathy Driscoll, John Eltham, Claire Tooley-Brooke, Marie and Joe Logan.
One coincidence about this event, I realised, is that this season is the 25th anniversary of my own material premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe. In 1992, Brian Jordan brought The Ultimate Love Song – click here to Edinburgh in his wonderfully-named show “Whoops Vicar, Is That Your Dick?”.
When I mentioned this coincidence, Rohan (naturally) asked me to give an acapella rendering in Spoon, which I did as best I could – not very well. You can hear Ben Murphy’s excellent recording of the song below:
But back to Spoon. The food was good, the chat was jolly. People drifted away as journeys home or appointments with other shows approached, but we were a pretty lively group for a couple of hours at least.
Eventually, when it was just me, Marie & Joe left, we went for a stroll around town to see what we might find for the remaining couple of hours, before I needed to head for the airport.
The show does exactly what it says on the tin – it covers Matisse’s life and work in his studio, so you see many of Matisse’s artefacts as well as his art works that contain those artefacts.
We were only there for 45 minutes or so (we don’t tend to linger), but still felt it was well worth the effort. We are both partial to a bit of Matisse – highly recommended to anyone who shares that partiality.
We enjoyed a drink in the members bar, then a Chinese meal from Four Seasons and an early night on a Friday for a change.
Janie was not well pleased with the deep-stained bed linen either, so got to task with the sweet staff, who swapped our mattress over and adorned the better mattress with clean linen ahead of our second night.
Monk’s House doesn’t open until lunchtime, which unfortunately coincided with the weather forecast’s prediction of heavy showers in Sussex. Still, showers can be dodged on a visit to a house and garden, so we resolved to follow the test match in the morning and go off towards Lewes as soon as lunch was called at The Oval.
Monk’s House is very different from Charleston. It must have been a far more orderly place back in the day and is now a National Trust run place. However, unlike Charleston, we were allowed to take pictures inside…
…but understandably there are rules, such as “no food and drink inside” and “don’t touch things or place stuff on things”.
One couple who entered just after us seemed hell bent on breaking every one of the rules within 30 seconds of arrival, sending the charming but bossy volunteer/guide lady into fits of polite reprimand.
On chatting with that same lady later, Janie and I were also reprimanded, but in our case for going to Charleston without visiting the Berwick Church, which the lady swore was the very best example of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s work. “You simply MUST go”, she said.
“Is that an instruction?”, I asked. “Yes, absolutely”, she said, “even if you say on TripAdvisor that I am the most terrible bossy-boots…I’m telling you, you really MUST see that Church”.
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf’s house-minder? Me. I thought we’d better conform and go to church. Initially I thought maybe tomorrow on the way home, but actually Monk’s House is quite small, so I started quietly plotting a reasonably rapid exit from Monk’s, after seeing the garden; we should still have plenty of time to go back out Charleston way to the church and then back to Brighton/Hove for the cricket match.
We got back to the hotel in good time to get ready to go out to the cricket. The weather improved and we were both chuffed to bits to discover that Toby Roland-Jones had taken three wickets in his first spell on test match debut at the Oval, while we were driving…and then a fourth which we saw on the TV when we got back to the hotel.
The weather improved enough for us to brave the walk from the hotel to the Hove cricket ground; a very pleasant walk it was too.
The Sussex CCC hospitality was warm, friendly and informal; ideal for a T20 match. To make matters better, the match even started on time:
But the weather forecast was iffy to say the least and after a while the brollies went up…Middlesex were not doing so well at that point.
The match resumed for a while and Middlesex’s fortunes improved after the resumption, with fours and sixes punctuated with flames,which Janie took great pains to capture on camera:
But then the rain returned and remained until the match was abandoned. Here is a link to the scorecard. Then it stopped raining again so Janie and I could walk back to the hotel.
We hadn’t seen much cricket, but we had enjoyed a very convivial evening in good company.
We were both in very good spirits; we’d had two very enjoyable days sojourning in Sussex.
Janie and I arranged a short trip to Sussex, primarily to visit cousin Sidney & Joan Pizan, but cunningly co-ordinated with Janie’s desire to see the Charleston Farmhouse and my desire to see Middlesex’s only game at Sussex-by-the-sea this season; a Friday evening T20 fixture.
The cricket and some other interesting touring will be written up in Part Two of this piece.
So, we stopped off at Charleston, a short detour on the way to Brighton. The sun shone that afternoon, which was good news for the visit as the place comprises beautiful gardens as well as the fascinating house.
The house was the home of Vanessa Bell and her entourage and has been restored/preserved in its Bloomsbury artists form. In the modern parlance, the whole house is a kind of installation art work, with many of the walls, furnishings, artefacts etc. having been decorated by one of the many artists who lived or hung out at the house over the years.
We were not allowed to take pictures inside the house, but Janie did buy a book with lots of pictures (as well as words), so if you ask her nicely she can show you pictures of the interiors.
We took lots of pictures in the lovely gardens – see Flickr album. A few of the best of them follow.
It is always a pleasure to see Sidney and Joan. The Jetty seemed to be a good choice of restaurant for this gathering; interesting dishes aplenty but not overly fussy food. Sparing Sidney the cooking job (which was his original plan) allowed the four of us to concentrate on catching up on each other’s news and chatting about all sorts.
Sidney and Joan cabbed it back to Hove while Janie and I chose to walk off a bit of our dinner. It had been a really pleasant evening, which had passed all too quickly.
Janie was very excited when we got tickets for Amanda Levete’s talk at the V&A, just ahead of “the big reveal” of the results of the new Exhibition Road Building Project. The talk was nicely timed for Janie’s birthday, 26 June.
We had hoped to get to see the Serpentine stuff that day as well, but we didn’t get our act together in time for that; indeed we only just allowed enough time to walk through the park from the flat to the V&A for the talk.
The talk was very interesting. Amanda Levete explained the background to and details of this extraordinarily ambitious and unusual project, to build a substantial exhibition space and piazza in what had been dead space at the Exhibition Road end of the V&A site.
Of course, the new exhibition space is underground, so cynics might argue that this V&A project was a gargantuan Kensington basement development. But we aren’t cynics in this regard – we were chomping at the bit to see the new space.
Drinks were pleasant enough and we chatted to Amanda Levete herself briefly. She cemented our view that we wanted to return Friday to see the new space properly ahead of the big reveal and events that evening.
Friday 30 June 2017
Daisy got her act together on the Friday, so we did have time to visit the Serpentine Gallery and Pavilion ahead of the V&A.
We started with the pavilion, not least because we were both peckish and could picnic therein…
…except we couldn’t, as an unattended bag encouraged the staff to clear the pavilion just as we started to munch.
I suppose there was some irony in me seeing the work of one of Chelmsford’s greatest so soon after my visit to Chelmsford. But I must say I prefer the idea of Grayson Perry’s work far more than I like the work itself. Janie is keener on the work.
Then on to the V&A to see the new space “ahead of the plebs”, as Daisy put it, with no apparent irony, despite her regular vitriol about social inequality, in the borough and beyond.
We then waited for “the big reveal” in the new Exhibition Road cafe. I thought there might be a fanfare at 17:00, or at least the multiple gates on the Aston Webb screen would be flung open, but no such thing happened. They merely started to admit people through the main Aston Webb gate whereas previously they were asking to see membership cards.
As we had some time to kill until the opening Friday evening events of the Reveal Festival were to begin, we went to see the Pink Floyd exhibition. Pink Floyd have never really been my thing, but of course I am familiar with much of the music and the iconography, so it was interesting to see it. Pretty crowded on a Friday evening, it was, especially as I suspect we weren’t the only people who had planned to take in that exhibition ahead of the live music events.
After the Pink Floyd, we wandered down to the John Madejski Garden to watch KOKOROKO setting up and sound checking for the headline gig later.
So we soon headed off upstairs to find the Hejira gig. This was in Room 82, a relatively small room, so we did the right thing getting to the room in good time, finding one of the last bits of wall space for a proper view.
The music is, in theory, inspired by Ethiopian music, but we couldn’t really detect much of that. Still, the lead singer is very elegant and has an extraordinary voice.
The following embedded vid is far funkier than the music they played in Room 82:
After that, we went to see the Music Television exhibit in the Tapestries room, then failed to get in to the virtual reality behind the scenes tour. I suppose, as we have had a special, private behind the scenes tour of the V&A in our time, our need for the virtual tour was not so great.
Then back to the John Madejski Garden to see get a drink and see KOKOROKO. The garden was really starting to fill up festival style, so we got ourselves a good position and enjoyed dancing to the DJ’s music while waiting for the gig.
KOKOROKO were very good – an afrobeat sound that reminded me a bit of Fela Kuti but with a more fusion/eclectic mix of sounds. I have embedded a vid at the bottom of this piece.
There was a great spirit among the crowd; we ended up dancing and high-fiving with various strangers. Whereas Janie and I had possibly been the youngest people at Amanda Levete’s talk on Monday, we were among the oldest people enjoying the festival headline act – who cares? We had a great time.
We agreed that the weather forecast for Saturday looked shocking and (I thought) agreed that a day out in Liverpool would be a good substitute for sitting around in (probably) vain hope of any cricket. We also agreed to liaise in the morning.
About 9:00 a.m. Daisy received a text from Lavender to say that, as the weather was so poor, they had decided to take the train to Blackpool for the day.
“What’s Blackpool like?” asked Daisy.
“I’ve never been on a wet June day and I’m not about to either,” was my reply, “what the hell was wrong with the Liverpool idea; I thought we’d all agreed a plan last night?”
Daisy phoned Lavender to ascertain that she had, in fact, confused the names Blackpool and Liverpool. The whole of the north of England is just one huge swathe of vaguely-named towns and cities to some people.
So we were as one with the plans and headed off to Southport railway station. For the princely sum of £5.10 each we were awarded the freedom of the Wirral and Northern Lines for the day.
We ran into some Middlesex supporters as we went to board our train. They seemed to think there might be play from 11:30 and wondered why we were fleeing town. The truth will have dawned on them as the day panned out – there was no cricket at all that day.
From Liverpool Central, we headed towards Albert Docks; our first stop being the Tate Liverpool. Daisy took some photos along the way.
We were really impressed with the Tate Liverpool and spent quite some time there.
We started with the Tracey Emin and William Blake in Focus exhibition. I’m not 100% sure about the connection between Blake and Emin – this seemed to me more a marketing ploy than a genuine connection – but I had never actually seen the Tracey Emin bed before, nor had I ever seen so many William Blake pictures gathered in one place. Well worthwhile.
We then went through the upper floor (i.e. same level as the Emin/Blake) of Constellations – which is the main regular exhibition at Tate Liverpool. We all enjoyed that enormously but felt in need of a sit down and some refreshment at that stage, so we went to the cafe for a while and then looked at the rest of Constellations.
Buoyed by our refreshments, we wandered round the block to the Beatles Experience, where there were long queues and a rather touristic look to the place, so we decided to go to the Cavern Club instead but, before leaving the docks area, to take Mike O’Farrell’s advice and visit the International Slavery Museum . I’m really glad we did.
I find it hard to try and articulate how that International Slavery Museum made me/us feel. It is very interesting. Some of it is shocking, not least the matter-of-fact inventories and documentation that makes it so clear that people were seen as commercial commodities. But much of first section of the museum is a wealth of information on the African culture from which so many of the slaves came and much of the last section is a celebration of the modern culture that has emerged through the descendants of former slaves.
One especially thought-provoking section is about modern slavery – in particular sex workers – which reminded me that slavery in all its horrible forms has not entirely gone.
Between the museums and the Cavern Club, we wanted to see Judy Chicago’s Fixing A Hole mural, at Stanley Dock near the Titanic Hotel. We took a cab there, on the advice of some helpful police-folk:
We didn’t hang around in the plush Titanic Hotel, nor the Stanley Dock. We were told we’d have no trouble getting a cab to the Cavern up on Great Howard Street, but we walked 5 minutes or more along that road without a sniff of a cab.
Chris cleverly suggested that we try Regent Road (along the side of the Mersey) instead. That worked rapidly…and we landed up with a Scouse cabby from central casting who told us his life story, how many he smokes and yet how far he walks, tales of seeing John Lennon’s ghost, everything he thought we ought to see in Liverpool…you get the picture. He was great.
We decided to head for a train between 18:00 and 18:15 to get us back to Southport in time to freshen up before dinner.
Dinner was at a family-run Italian restaurant named Volare, about 30 seconds crawl on hands and knees (not that we did it that way) from the hotel. The food was excellent and the staff helpful/friendly. The highlight (or perhaps low-light) of the evening was towards the end, when the staff with great fanfare played “Happy Birthday To You” at full volume over the sound system and presented a rather embarrassed-looking lady at the table behind me with a candle-lit tiramisu.
Unbeknown to me, Daisy signalled to the staff that it was also my birthday (which of course it wasn’t), so five minutes later they went through the rigmarole again for me, much to my discomfort and the glee of the other three. I shall exact my revenge; don’t know where, don’t know when, but the dish will be served cold.
In truth, we’d done many interesting things and had a lot of fun that day, despite most of it being distinctly “Plan B” activity.