Woman About Town

It’s a wrap

London seems like a brave new world after touching down from Venice

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Thermal tights, thermal leggings, thermal socks, two thermal jerseys, trousers, cashmere pullover, overcoat, gloves, scarf: standard working outfit for a day’s filming in central London. The BBC’s budgets are so minute that anything which can be shot out of doors will be, hence all those frames of historians wandering moodily round St James’s Park. I’ve spent more time shivering in the streets of Whitehall than the wraith of Boris Johnson’s conscience. The crew get to wear full polar gear, but appearing on camera requires one to look moderately normal — which is not so easy when the “wardrobe” is the wing mirror of the kit van. Slapping on foundation at 6am with the temperature around zero is like trying to make up a crisp packet. Still, it was wonderful to freeze without a mask, still mandatory everywhere in Italy. 

Arriving in town from semi-locked-down Venice always leaves me feeling like the dowdiest and most timid of country mice. It takes a few days to get used to being in a city where anything much happens after 6pm. Tellingly, the biggest thrill is always my first almond matcha latte in the Land of Cockayne which is Pret a Manger. The choice! The variety of nutritious international options! Paying with contactless!

• • •

I never thought I could get so excited about a “Roots and Fruits” smoothie until I moved to a place where green juice is a rumour from Milano. Dining at Brutto, Russell Norman’s latest restaurant in Clerkenwell was a bit coals-to-Newcastle but I was dying to review it. Dinner was wonderful but perhaps not quite so exciting as a wander round the aisles of Waitrose. Brits have such a reverent attitude to Italian food, but every time I’m in England I’m struck by the quality and variety of the produce which is taken for granted here. Culinary purity has its strengths, but for me a visit to London means scoffing as much Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Lebanese and so marvellously on as the thermal leggings will allow.

The power grotto

A totally spoiling evening at Robin Birley’s 5 Hertford Street was another reminder of just how civilised London can be. The club’s top-floor restaurant is a nereid’s grotto of swirling colours and softly gleaming lamps (old-school flattery for the complexion, I’ll take it). I’m old enough to mind when a waiter addresses the table as “you guys”, so the impeccable service and ambrosial food couldn’t have been finer balm to my chilly orange-streaked soul. I couldn’t possibly say who else was there, but Hertford Street is definitely still the centre of the capital’s power-broking.

• • •

The hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain is a fantastic show, expansive, observant and ingenious, not least because it re-contextualises the work of this most British of artists within the wider European practices of his contemporaries. Seeing his pictures against Chardin’s still-lives for example made them freshly alive, emphasising the technical flair so often neglected within the intense narrative qualities of the paintings. 

The labelling of the show is however utterly infuriating. From the introductory explanation that “These Enlightenment ideas were mainly produced by, and benefited, White men from the upper and middle classes” to the positively cretinous misinterpretation of the Before and After duo, the notes suggest that the only purpose of looking at a work of art is its dour dissection for signs of racism, colonialism or sexism, which seems to have led to a wilful blindness when it comes to actually looking at the pictures. 

The triple-crowned figure in the left corner of the Bedlam scene in The Rake’s Progress is emphatically not “a crazed Britannia”, it’s the Pope, holding a crozier, not a trident. Hogarth does convey explicit prejudice, but it’s anti-Catholic and anti-Jacobite, neither of which was mentioned, let alone explained. The narrowness and historical provincialism of the labels tells us very little about Hogarth and far too much about a joyless judgmentalism which can apparently only assess art in terms of abuse.

Rich tea

I huffed off to The Traveller’s Club for tea with the conductor James Ross, whose recent projects in Turkey have done more to recontextualise canonical art than any amount of screeching on Twitter. 

For the last three years, Dr Ross has been organising concerts for the Buyukada Ensemble on the eponymous island in the Sea of Marmara, bringing together young musicians from Turkey, London and Hamburg to perform works by Debussy and Schoenberg amongst others. Dr Ross is passionate about the potential of classical music for achieving soft diplomacy and the sell-out audiences on Buyukada, many of whom have never attended a classical concert, seem to agree. We drank our Earl Grey under the club’s magnificent Venetian Swordsman painting and counted up its Arabic, Byzantine, Ottoman and Christian references — cultural appropriation at its finest. 

• • •

The Hope Theatre in Islington was staging Wally Sewell’s sly, surreal two-hander, Power Luncheon, dramatizing three wartime encounters between Winston Churchill and George VI. Peter Saracen as a cringing Cockney king was as striking as Edmund Dehn’s stentorian Churchill was convincing (though I did wonder if the great man would really have sported a ready-made bow tie). 

Perhaps it’s more obvious to a visitor, but England’s continued obsession with the Second World War strikes an odd note in contemporary London. It was a fine play, but it didn’t illuminate much that after The Crown and Gary Oldman in a fat suit we didn’t already know, and the subject seemed so entirely disconnected from the realities of the living city. 

In the words of my colleague Andrew Roberts, “the Second World War is simply the most fascinating thing that happened in the twentieth century”, but what does it say about British culture at present that it has to endlessly rehearse a sense of unity, identity and pride which cohered more than 70 years ago?

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