Tag Archives: Trafalgar Square

On London/Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre


I have fallen in love again. How refreshing though that it’s not a woman that is the focus of my affection, but a city. Like a woman, this city is indifferent to me, but unlike with women this vast, inexpressible indifference merely adds to the irresistible charm of the place. I like feeling insignificant and anonymous within its boundaries, in fact I positively relish the sense of oblivion. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the possibilities; it all submerges every little, trivial concern I might have. I drown in the ocean of seemingly limitless fuel for my imagination and oh how good it feels. To feel simultaneously satisfied that I am gradually gaining a geography of the place, whilst barely scratching the surface of what is really there, of all that’s on offer. Gorgeous girls galore, lines and lines of landmarks, tearaway taxis, bulging buses, teeming theatres, pulsing pavements and many marvellous museums; it’s all there. If variety is the spice of life then London has a hot twang I am acquiring a ravenous taste for.

But now I am worried, I do not have my next trip lined up, pencilled in the diary. I am hungry for the city and fear the withdrawal symptoms. Having only recently discovered the joys of walking the capital I crave the stroll crammed with sights and sounds. How can anything else compare? Things simply happen in London. And on such a majestic scale that it still feels like the centre of a world empire, still feels like a great, churning engine of commerce that could achieve so much. There’s so much to discover. I’m not one for shopping, unless it’s an awe inspiring jaunt through the grandeur of Harrods, not buying anything but soaking up my surroundings. And yet this weekend the scale of the shops in London surprised my senses and seduced me. Why I don’t know, I’ve always known they were there, been there before. But this time I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to able to pop out from home, my own base, to these places, perhaps with one item in mind, only to leave with others you forgot you wanted or didn’t know you did. I could have spent hours and hours trawling through books, it seemed impossible that they would not have what you wanted and even if they didn’t there was bound to be at least three or four alternatives you’d never have thought of. You’d feel nervous about the state of your bank balance and a little guilty, but in an exciting way; how could life ever be boring? And in some places things were cheaper anyway! What am I still doing out in the dead limbs of the countryside, when everything gathers there at the heart of everything?

Of course I know this is naive and not everything about London is great. I felt pursued by Cafe Neros the whole weekend for example, to such an extent that my train even passed one of their out of town storage facilities. They seem to have an outpost on every street. It’s either them or Pret A Manger, or often both. And I know perhaps a prolonged stay might have me cursing the dirty grime and toil and danger of city life. But increasingly now, in what I would like to think of as my clearer moments, I am realising that “life is islands of ecstasy in an ocean of ennui”, as The Dice Man puts it, and London is the sort of place that the islands are more frequent. I mean for me at the moment simply a glimpse of the skyline is thrilling and I can’t imagine that thrill ever dying out completely. So I think I’ve decided as one of my life’s few certainties that I want to live in our glorious capital city, even if I must wait a few years: London is the goal.

Anyway onto the main event then, after the distracting diversion of my musings. I was in London yet again to see a stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ successful novel Birdsong. It seemed appropriate that I would see this acclaimed First World War story dramatised a day before Remembrance Sunday, but insensitively inappropriate, if only in a trivial way, that the home of the production was the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. Whilst there were moments of comedy in Birdsong this was hardly stand-up and the key overarching themes were mainly grim and immensely serious. Nevertheless I swallowed my grievances about the suitability of the theatre and purchased a programme.

Perusing it prior to the start of the play I was intrigued by the sensitive artwork and pleasantly surprised to recognise a number of the performers. I knew Ben Barnes, of Prince Caspian fame, was playing central character Stephen Wraysford but couldn’t really care less about his previous body of work. However Nicholas Farrell has an impressive stage, film and TV CV. I think it was predominantly Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet that I recognised him from, in which he played Horatio. But he’d also been in Torchwood and Spooks. Spooks is one of my favourite series, not least because of its endless vistas of a glamorous London, and I was delighted to find that Isabelle Azaire, the main female love interest of Stephen, would be played by Genevieve O’Reilly, who played a double crossing CIA agent in the last series, working for a shadowy secret organisation and seducing MI5 officers with sultry American tones. The other most recognisable face was that of Lee Ross, playing the role of vital sapper character Jack Firebrace, whose credits included Eastenders and The Catherine Tate Show.

I did have slight misgivings about the fact that Farrell would play both cruel, unloving French husband Rene Azaire in the early scenes and Captain Gray later on, just as Iain Mitchell would play both the insufferable French oath Berard and then the insufferable English oath Colonel Barclay. But both actors produced such accomplished performances that I was willing to overlook this choice of economy. In fact in my view Farrell’s experience clearly showed and he was the highlight of the play in terms of quality acting. I had wondered if the performers would adopt French accents for the French scenes but was relieved they did not, with Farrell differentiating between his two characters sufficiently with a well executed Scottish accent for Captain Gray. The fact that everyone was speaking English in France was dealt with as matter-of-factly and skilfully as in the novel, with one of the characters remarking at some point that Stephen’s French was excellent, for which he thanked them.

I had always liked the novel by Faulks. In fact at the time I had first read it I was enthralled by it. A friend of mine remarked the other day that it had felt too much like a novel and I know what she means. It feels terribly contrived at times and is riddled with cliché and the play does not get away with them so well. I really should have re-read the book in order to properly critique the play and also in order to recall whether or not it was truly as good as I remember. Perhaps I was simply seduced by the period as the war fascinates me, as well as the romance, I’m a hopeless romantic. But from memory I know that the narrative sucked you into Stephen’s predicament so you felt strong ties with him. What I liked was the way the powerful and passionate love scenes early on gave Stephen a back-story and purpose that differentiated him from the usual heroes of the trenches. The book is rich with incident and historical detail but is not overloaded with it; here I disagree with my friend. I have read historical fiction that makes a fetish of research, David Mitchell’s latest The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did it for long periods, but Birdsong did not. In Birdsong the focus was the emotional and timeless themes of humanity.

Some of the most affecting and accurate of these themes are difficult to express in words on a page, let alone dramatically on stage. There’s no doubt that a lot of what is good from the novel does not successfully transfer and the shame for the play is that Rachel Wagstaff tries to convey Stephen’s motivations and musings poorly. Neither Wagstaff’s writing nor Ben Barnes’ acting is up to the long passages in which Stephen is supposedly composing thoughts for his diary, alone at the front of the stage. Much of the first act, in which Stephen falls for the married Isabelle, is driven by his private reflections. Of course it was always going to be impossible to transform the explicit, erotic sex scenes of the novel to the stage without creating a very different type of production altogether, but for the entire first act you can sense Wagstaff wrestling with the dilemma of how to convey the intensity of Stephen’s love adequately, knowing how vital it is to the events that follow. Somehow in the novel you get caught up and follow Stephen along, not questioning whether this is just seedy, passionate lust or misguided youthful emotions. In the play though when Barnes says “I love you and I always will”, each time it sounds childish and clichéd and I would find myself agreeing with my friend more and more. Barnes just seemed far too smitten in a sickening sense, rather than a stirring, moving one.

In the programme I found that Wagstaff’s first play had been called The Soldier and was set in 1915. So she was on more familiar ground in act two when the action jumps forward to The Somme in 1916 and a wartime setting. It’s disappointing that someone could not have done a better job of act one though as I know how riveted and gripped by it I was in the book and genuinely despondent to find the action skip so far ahead. And caring about the love story becomes so crucial later on. Nevertheless I am making it sound worse than it was. Despite the clunky awkwardness of Barnes’ soliloquy like sections at times, the actual scenes were passable to good, if lacking the emotional  power (and erotic excitement) of the novel. And act two was a considerable improvement, despite the tedious diary format continuing, only this time with working class lad Jack Firebrace’s toned down, simpler reflections on things and letters back home. Generally though the camaraderie of the front Wagstaff captures well, with the humour of jolly idiot Berard in act one replaced by male banter and the idiocy of officers.

Another friend of mine, this one a fellow fan of Birdsong, was eager to hear how the tunnels were reproduced on stage. For this was another unique feature of Birdsong’s take on the war: action in the competing tunnels both sides dug out beneath no man’s land for various reasons. There were communication tunnels, fighting tunnels and explosive tunnels for blowing up the enemy from below. Birdsong has nearly been made into a film several times and I always thought that the claustrophobic, atmospheric scenes in tunnels, particularly the shoot-out, would make dramatic action set pieces. And so they did on stage too. Much of the effect of being underground was created through lighting, with blackness enveloping the stage besides gentle amber glows at the front. The rest was done by a low overhanging wall that came about half-way down the stage. The actors would then crawl beneath this, before emerging into the front of the stage, further along the tunnel where you could stand. Then for the fight with German soldiers, when two tunnels found each other, dust poured out along with sounds of an explosion. The Germans emerged stunned and surprised, brandishing pistols at the elevated rear of the stage, looking down on the Brit characters at the front. Shots that smash your ear drums were fired and an even louder, brighter grenade thrown. I had never seen such exciting scenes on stage.

But then I’m still a relative newcomer to theatre. I now have the inclination to discover more of it (particularly the charm and sophistication of Shakespeare) but it’s a world that was mostly cut off to me whilst growing up. Edging my way to my seat was still an act of deft, death defying balance as far I’m concerned. This is not me moaning though; I absolutely love the look and feel of the theatre. Just to know the building oozed history compared to the local multiplex was so interesting and fascinating to me. And even my balcony seat, when suitably armed with £1 binoculars, was the best of both worlds; broad overview of everything coupled with close-ups.

In the final act Birdsong came into its own. Even Barnes, who had struggled to convince me he had the required acting heft to play Wraysford, upped his game a gear. It was now that I remembered how this portion of the novel was the most moving and the play benefitted considerably from ditching the unnecessary modern day section of the novel, which seemed to be there simply to reflect Faulks’ own experiences in researching the book. Faulks and Wagstaff had both been heavily dependent on the diaries of soldiers in their writing process, but the difference was Faulks had interweaved his research in a different, rich style, whereas Wagstaff had actually simply used the diary device in her drama; it seemed unimaginative and unable to truly engage the audience. In this final chunk of the play the lonely speeches at the front of the stage were ditched almost completely and when they were used they worked much better. There was also more time on stage for both Jeanne and Stephen, who had a connection I did not recall from the novels but was intriguing. Jeanne was wonderfully played by Zoe Waites. She seemed strongly drawn to Stephen, desperate to share her sister’s secret with him to ease his gloomy woe but too loyal to break her promise.

Then there were the big climatic scenes: a reunion between Stephen and Isabelle and a claustrophobic collapse that imprisons Jack and Stephen in the tunnels. I wish I could remember the novel better, as I have a feeling there were changes, particularly as I remember a bird being used in the tunnel and Stephen’s phobia manifesting itself down there. Generally though this theme was dealt with well, with some nice dialogue between Stephen and Jeanne when she tries to lift him from depression and they debate the merits and evils of Birdsong. The scene in which Stephen sees Isabelle again was so moving, far more so than the joyous larking about of the early affair by the river and despite these scenes not completely convincing me. I was so affected by the speeches about love, even with some corny, cheesy lines, that I had to rush to the toilet when the play had finished and dispatch a rash text to the one I love in vain; my equivalent of a drunken splurge of affection, so intoxicated was I by the drama that I simply had to tell her I loved her, it was all that mattered. The effect this scene had on me somewhat overshadowed the final scenes with Jack in the tunnel and the rescue and the end of the war. But these were also well done. I was so relieved the play ended on a high and overall there’s no doubt that it was a quality production, if a little flawed at times. From my recollections of the novel though it was never going to surpass its brilliance, merely echo it and be good in different ways.

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Peaceful Protest or Manic March?


And of course, following on from my last post, those that died for our country died to preserve democracy, freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest.

If you weren’t marching yesterday the impression you will have gained from the national media is one of troublemaking tearaways, descending on London with their purposeless, ignorant views, intent on causing damage and achieving thrilling highs with each frustration filled kick at the establishment, at unprepared police. If you were at the protest, as I was, you would have seen in excess of 50,000 perfectly peaceful but passionate people with a clearly shared general aim. I say “seen” but really you couldn’t see a lot beyond the immediate placards in front and behind you, but you could sense and feel the masses. My friend described it as a “sea of placards”. I went the whole day blissfully unaware that anything truly violent had taken place. The headline of The Times today reads “Thuggish and disgraceful”, in what I view to be a disgraceful piece of reporting. Of course for the media the story of the day was the eruption of rare violence but it is wrong to falsely brand such a vast swathe of respectful young people as “thuggish”. For one thing The Times headline takes out of context a quote from a police officer who had actually praised the majority of those attending the day, whilst condemning the minority his men were consequently surprised by.

Having said that I did not witness any violence all day, I did make it to Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, scene of the carnage, and the tense atmosphere in the air was chilling. Chilling in an exciting way. I was for the most part not fearful at all during my brief stay at Millbank. High-vis wearing organisers made half-hearted attempts to steer us away from the throng at Tory HQ, but having remembered what it was and just past the MI5 offices (which were apparently locked down at some point), I was keen to get a glimpse. I’d say we got about half way in but there was still a sizeable crowd between us and the doors, so later I could not say if glass had already been smashed or violence was already in progress. There was a fire going though, off to our left over more heads. It was fuelled by placards and the crude wooden sticks used to hold them aloft. Later I would see pictures of Cameron dunked into the flames in the papers, at the time I could only see the glimmer of orange reflected on the roof and smell the thick black fumes. Helicopters swirled past the towers overhead. Enthusiastic chanting, full of essentially harmless vitriol, went on with an endless intensity not noticeable elsewhere on the march. And as we left the sickening boom of an explosion close at hand foreshadowed the grisly scenes I would later learn about.

There was admittedly something exciting and inspiring about the atmosphere at Millbank, something I find slightly shameful having seen the damage caused there at some point during the day afterwards. There was an irresistible sense of something being done, of our indignation and righteousness being more adequately expressed. As someone I saw interviewed later on BBC News 24 said, the coalition now had Thatcher’s riots to go with her cuts. I do not in any way condone the violence, as it has undoubtedly smeared the message the ordinary marcher like myself was striving to hammer home, but there was a feeling amongst us that we ought to do something more than just walk and the added venom at Millbank was intoxicating. The country and the politicians needed to be sent a shocking signal, a wake-up call, which forced them to acknowledge the scale of the cuts was real and catastrophic, and as negative and transforming anything Thatcher or those before her dared to enact. But it’s almost certain the majority of the actual perpetrators were not even true to the cause but the moronic fanatics such large scale protests inevitably attract.

Prior to the seductive feel of the siege at Millbank, the march had been an impressive spectacle but an occasionally tedious and tame affair. The only glimpse of genuine revolutionary zeal before the flickering flames and fists pumping in the air at Millbank, was a red-hatted man with a megaphone in Parliament Square. This extraordinary speaker loitered in the area where protesting banners and signs permanently reside opposite Parliament; the sort proclaiming Iraq to be a war crime and Afghanistan a corporate expedition etc. Like a stand-up comedian he playfully bantered with the crowd, which had ground to a halt so that it was slowly trudging past Big Ben and the Commons at best. Groups were beginning a sit-down protest, with Nick Clegg probably still inside after taking over PMQ duty. Girls mounted traffic lights, litter swirled at our feet and drum beats pounded the air in the distance. He flattered us at first, saying what intelligent students we must be. Then he casually slipped in the conspiracy, urging us to use our intelligence and “connect the dots”. Just as I worried he was getting predictable, came his call to arms: “Think about it there aren’t enough police in this city to stop you all. Marching is good but won’t get it done, join me and occupy the city.” Or something to that effect, but more charismatically phrased. I was struck into excited laughter by the audacity of it. We hadn’t come to occupy London, Hitler and Napoleon had spent an awful lot of money and time and expertise trying to accomplish the same thing. Our spontaneous occupation, led by megaphone man, seemed unlikely to succeed therefore, but at the same time, glancing around me, the sheer numbers told me we would have a good go at it if we all stood together. The fantasy, that of a bygone age of socialist revolution, of people power and the possibilities of sudden change, truly motivated me.

Earlier at the march’s official start point on Horse Guards Avenue, speakers had tried to rally the troops. On the ground and in the thick of the towering placards however, the reality was that you could not hear the rhetoric, merely catching snatches of the speech. Each would unmistakeably end with the refrain “NO IFS, NO BUTS, NO EDUCATION CUTS” though. At times I think it may have been just as well for me that I could not hear the speakers, as I heard a glimpse of something about Trident at one point and there was inevitably other overly idealistic or socialist rhetoric I didn’t necessarily support. The striking white buildings on the avenue, dotted with innumerable windows, looming over us on each side, channelled the wind and the noise so that it was both a loud and cold wait for the off. The time was filled with idle talk about the changes being made by the coalition, its worst effects and the need for an alternative to march in support of.

There is undoubtedly a need for a well thought through alternative if opponents of the government’s scheme are to be credible, but the leading article in The Times today is unfairly harsh about the ignorance of students. It claims that the government system is an improvement in some ways, with the rise to £21,000 salary threshold, and it is only fair graduates pay for their education. However it neglects the deterrent such greater debts will act as to ordinary students from ordinary families, it ignores the fact that £21,000 is still an average wage and will often be earned without the burden of debt by those who didn’t attend university and “benefit” from it and most critically of all The Times ignores the key chant of the protest. We were marching against the absurdity of the government cutting funding by 40% (as well as the vital EMA payment, which needed tightening reform, not abolition) and then raising fees to plug that gap, creating a system which the students effectively pay for themselves and which is no better in terms of quality than the current one. British universities will continue to slide in comparison to international competitors, the government’s key claim, that their plan is sustainable, falls flat on its face.

Having said this I did feel absurd at times, marching alongside some with overly optimistic demands. I also felt bad for the unrelenting criticism coming the way of Nick Clegg. Whilst Clegg clearly made a terrible political miscalculation pledging himself and his party against any rise in fees, I still stand by my view of him espoused on this blog as an essentially admirable politician. As head of the junior partner in the coalition this is clearly one of the decisions that is principally Tory in its motivation. If the Lib Dems had total parliamentary control (an almost impossible to imagine scenario) then the spending could have been structured elsewhere to honour a pledge to students. As it was Clegg opted for some influence rather than none and has to bow to Cameron’s party on the bigger issues. The fact that the violence erupted at Tory HQ suggests the demonstrators and activists know who the real villain of the plan is, but there is still understandable anger about the Lib Dem “betrayal”. Clegg also set himself up for a frighteningly fall with his constant talk of honesty and honour in politics. I’d like to think he would still back a progressive alternative should one be found (hurry up Labour!) and I’m sure he’ll hope to return to the issue, perhaps with different allies. As it is though I did feel uplifted to be marching in solidarity with others against cuts to education; that Clegg should not have accepted so lightly and should have done more about.

When we did finally set off it was at a shuffling, rather than marching, pace. Having built up a lot of enthusiasm standing stationary for long periods, I was keen to stride ahead, but had to be content with feeling part of a massive, snaking entity, writhing through London streets, demanding to be heard. The shuffling continued with the occasional more spacious period, past Downing Street and painfully slowly through Parliament Square, all the way to the drama of Millbank. I took far too much pleasure in muttering to myself that David Cameron was miles away in China, as ignorant students directed personally tailored chant after chant at his famous black doorway as we passed Number Ten. I wished for a widescreen HD overview of events, for an action replay as I always did at live football matches in packed stadiums. It would have been nice to truly comprehend the scale of events from beyond my tiny worker ant perspective; to know where best my many, multiple protesting talents were to deployed. Where did they need me I wondered?

Despite the blinkered vision it was wonderful to feel part of history, to feel part of something greater with meaning, even if in reality it would prove politically ineffective. And as usual I loved wandering around London, seeing the Thames from all angles, absorbing that skyline. I’m getting far too used to and seduced by it. On top of it all I managed to share it with friends, as opposed to my usual solitary travels, some of whom I had not seen in a while. I didn’t get long enough in their company and I didn’t plant my flag within the bowels of Parliament, but all in all me and the beard had a good day out on the march.

Cultural Wanderings of an Ignorant Youth


This week I went all middle-class and cultural. On Wednesday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for “An Evening of Vivaldi” with violinist Nigel Kennedy. And yesterday I ambled round the Tate Modern, hoping I didn’t look as stupid as I felt. It was all certainly a far-cry from my rural roots and the working class hubbub of a football match and the intoxicating odours of warmed sausage rolls. But if I’m honest I don’t feel comfortable in either environment.

Wednesday then and the much anticipated, long awaited evening of Vivaldi. I was spirited to the venue by an irritable cabbie all the more grunty and scowly I suspect due to the additional traffic clogging the arteries of the capital’s roads, vomited up from below by the tube strike. On several occasions his grumpy state prompted less than textbook driving manoeuvres and one of these bursts prompted the howling horns of a sleek BMW pulling out into our lane, along with an un-graceful involuntary spasm from me. Not daunted in the slightest he drove on and continued occasionally with his inaudible mutterings, and I listened to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 as he accepted calls about the change in the law allowing prisoners to vote, prompted by the EU courts. Eventually the Albert Hall crept on me from nowhere and I was out, stalking around its beautifully lit circumference, killing time until the doors were opened.

I was suitably impressed by the building from the outside and enjoyed snatching chunks of a singer that floated from a window in the Royal College of Music opposite, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the scale of the interior. I loved the deep scarlet (or crimson?) colour to everything and the history present in the antique seats, but whilst it was undoubtedly a big venue, perhaps my aforementioned working class sensibilities, used to giant football stadia, left me unmoved by the jewel in Britain’s musical crown. However I was pleased with the view from my seat and impressed by the impression that everyone’s seat must have a decent view. Still it felt smaller than it looked on the Dr.Who Proms anyway.

The only thing that mattered to my father (if I wasn’t writing would have called him Dad, but that sounded wrong and just a little too affectionate to be accurate, although father makes me sound more refined than I am) about Nigel Kennedy was that he too was an Aston Villa fan. All I really knew of him was a few performances on TV and the CD of the Four Seasons I own, played by him, that I know inside out and was my only real motivation for coming. That CD alone convinced me I loved Vivaldi and seeing as I loved his native city of Venice too it seemed like a good idea to delve deeper. But as I have said, I am a stranger to this world of cultured classical music and was therefore grateful in many ways for Nigel’s eccentric onstage behaviour with a working class twang. He honestly looked scruffy in my opinion. But he was instantly likeable. He swore frequently and strongly, to the shock of some and amusement of most; “Now I guess I have to play some shit on my own”. He bantered with audience members late because of the tube strike, pouncing on one with kisses and theatrical gestures; “You’ve only missed a few concertos but there’s loads of good stuff left”. He referred to sport when introducing his glamorous and beautiful female companions. He generally joked and entertained. And he seemed as baffled as I was at times at the ever so frequent applause. Every minor piece required a bout of praise at its finish, leaving me and by the look on his face at times, Nigel himself, wondering when they would get on with it. But then I guess it was all so wonderfully and terribly British, and why so many Germans, Irish and Italians were seated around me to enjoy the show.

I am hardly qualified to comment at length on the music itself. The first half of the show was comprised mostly of concertos I was unfamiliar with and consequently towards the end of it I found myself growing a little weary, especially during the softer sections. I confess that I enjoy the frantic and furious crescendos considerably more than the gentle, swaying parts, no matter how beautiful and intoxicating and calming they may be. I suppose the real revelation in seeing the performance live was the sheer visual spectacle of the violin. During my favourite intense moments the entire orchestra moved in energetic, synchronised slashes and jolts. All that striking swishing up and down through the air was like a chorus of swords striking at our ears, echoing the very “V” sound of Vivaldi, Venice and violin. Watching Kennedy duet with his various exotic female companions was also extraordinary for me, seeing the sort of chemistry I had only previously experienced between singers or dancers between two instruments was wonderful. The way he would undulate and stomp and stamp was so engaging at times, as if he was enjoying it then so would we I guess. Nevertheless I shamefully longed for some of the lively hip gyrations and sexy beats of Dirty Dancing which I had seen the week before as a present for my mother, at times. But of course when he finally got round to “four little unknown concertos” I was so delighted he was going to play the whole Four Seasons, and felt for a brief moment brilliantly middle-class and cultured to be in on such a joke. The striking strings tell such a story in that music and the waves of sound rising up stronger and stronger during my preferred pieces was wonderful and fantastic to hear the whole thing in one go. Admittedly by the end I was tired and keen to leave for bed, but I was privileged to have heard what I knew as tracks on a CD, treasured and enjoyed in quiet privacy, in the company of others, even if they were more than simply a casual appreciator as I was.

Mind you I am a bloody expert on Vivaldi when you compare my knowledge of his music to my knowledge of modern art. So I’m not sure why I had the urge to go and look round the Tate Modern, but go I did. I guess part of it was simply the wonderful approach and the walk past St.Pauls and over the marvellous Millennium Bridge, poised like a delicate, wobbly blade over the Thames. The walk was actually surprisingly easy and quick and I shall be doing it again. I loved the contrast of St.Pauls white marble with that of the Tate Modern building itself, beautiful in its own way. Part of my problem has always been though that I appreciate the buildings selected to store great art in more than the works themselves. Whilst I can see the value more easily in the traditional works at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (and I always pop in), with some pieces, such as those of the Venetian canals, blowing me away with their vibrancy and colour, I find it much easier to marvel at length at the scale and beauty of the building around me than the paintings.

Once inside the Tate Modern though the interior is nothing to marvel at. Disappointingly there was no sign of the controversial seed art installation that had made the news, but I picked up a map and set off aiming to educate myself. I was expecting to despise a lot of what I saw, as I am an ignorant, rural, traditional sceptic when it comes to “modern” art in many ways. I do not claim to know what constitutes art and what doesn’t, and would rather not get into that debate as it’s surely a subjective question, but for me a piece of canvas painted one colour, albeit a striking one, is interior design, not art. There’s no reason why it would not have been done before by someone. I’m not saying it doesn’t require skill and aesthetic appreciation, but it does not seem to be art to me. And yes there was the odd piece that I hurried past to avoid staring at it angrily and in disbelief. Even Matisse’s celebrated “the snail” which I was familiar with from a documentary and was surrounded by admirers, does nothing for me with its simple blocks of colour. For the most part however I was surprised at how engaging I found a lot of the works and generally enjoyed my couple of hours or so wandering about.

Calling the Tate Modern “modern” can be misleading in itself, as there is a lot of history to be found within the walls. Granted when you take human civilisation as a speck on the table top of world history then the twentieth century works on show are very modern indeed, but for me as a child born at the end of the century it’s a period rich in variety, close enough to be stirringly relevant but far enough away to be exotic. I stumbled across Monet’s Water Lillies for example, which seemed like a genuine progression of what the sceptic might term “real” art, as opposed to a cop out like some of the more controversial, politically motivated revolutionary pieces. I was happy to sit and lose myself in its colours for a fair few minutes and could see the value in the blend of colours expressing something true about what one actually saw in such situations. As I’ve said before on this blog, for me culture speaks to me most when it says something true and I found throughout the day that reading the brief background of a piece might help me see the meaning the artist was striving for and thus appreciate it more. Having said that some pieces were simply a visual treat I didn’t want to spoil by thinking about and dissecting, such as Jackson Pollack’s Summertime, on the opposite wall to Monet, which was a colourful splash of elongated colour.

Generally reading about and discussing the various methods of artists, especially when they produce dubious results, bores and alienates me. But when these methods are placed in the context of their times and given intellectual motivation I am more interested. I found a number of pieces by German artist Max Ernst interesting, for example. One of them, The Entire City, painted in 1934, was created using a technique called grattage or scraping. This introduced elements of chance into the work and I found this philosophical idea fascinating, especially when placed in historical context it is said to express Ernst’s pessimism at the unfolding Nazi situation in Germany. It also helped that the visual end product of The Entire City was visually intriguing as well as being not so abstract as to be unintelligible by my simple eyes.

I have always found it difficult to relate to the craft of the artist, perhaps simply because I was so utterly useless and talentless myself.  I have always preferred and understood the skill of the written word and seen more value there. But in the “Poetry and Dream” section of the Tate I found some pleasing overlap that could stimulate my brain as well as my senses. A piece by Juliao Sarmento entitled Mehr Licht, meaning “more light”, is interestingly ambiguous with the image of a man holding a woman’s neck and was intended to be so, as the artist points out that such a gesture can be violent or tender. Having said this I still found that the end product of some works seemed to bare no correspondence to their descriptions lavishing praise and finding intellectual enquiries where there were none. Francis Picabia’s Handsome Pork Butcher for example just seemed grotesque and silly and perhaps that was the point, although his Otaiti was more thought provoking.

So whilst I did appreciate the different and striking pieces, especially when they had inspirational ideas behind them and connected to them, the uneducated ogre in me still preferred the pieces that resembled “real” art and exuded skill. Yes there were sculptures by Anish Kapoor and others such as a tumbling stack of felt and a circuit comprised of ordinary silver kitchen objects that held me transfixed for a while, but these seemed to belong in a different category. The realist room containing pieces by Meredith Frampton and Dod Procter, seemed to have a better blend of skill and modern ideas. Dod Procter’s Morning had a wonderful 3D quality and captured the light and imperfections of the human form as well, and better, than any camera. Frampton’s works too seemed to have mastered the fall of light as well as containing symbolic, vibrant objects that made it more modern and set it apart from a traditional portrait.

Oh dear listen to me trundling out the sort of art critic bollocks that usually makes me heave. And worse still I’m a complete amateur; at least they’ve been taught or learned the bullshit they spout inside out. If I’m honest in the vast majority of the galleries I was often distracted from the works by the superior quality of female that creativity seems to attract. I mean seriously I may have to consider cultivating a sideline in bullshit art appreciation alongside my “writer’s beard”, as a friend of mine told me I was now sporting. I have literally not seen so many attractive girls in one place at once in a very long time. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. But anyway every other girl seemed to be a stunner, I was looking around for the gallery official whose glorious job it was to admit the beautiful and turn away those whose standards fell short. Was it always like this? I imagined that if I should ever be lucky enough to talk to any of these women, even if they churned out arty farty crap that was incomprehensible to me, I would listen, transfixed, jaw hanging in wonder and scraping the industrial floor. There was the odd creative guy type about who would clearly act as a magnet to all the budding female artists drifting aimlessly, except that a great number of them may have been gay by appearances. But then who can judge by appearances alone? Artists perhaps. Anyway needless to say I did not speak to any of these wonders, these fine specimens, these art drugged creatures. I simply marvelled and left, having enjoyed my cultural wanderings. But I remained essentially terribly ignorant.