I’ve been in London now for just under five weeks. Actually, it net terms, it’s just half of that as the first 17 days were spent in splendid isolation—a fortnight—which was reinforced by three additional days spent inside during which the rain was so heavy that even going out for a a few minutes to buy a newspaper resulted in a through drenching.
I have more or less ceased to watch the news on TV. Covid, Covid-19, Coronavirus, lockdown, self-isolation, fines, closure of pubs, clubs and gyms. That’s it. Each five minutes there’s someone with a new story, two people with differing opinions, four people who start new rumours and the like. Every now and then, there’s another story to take one’s mind off the effects of the deadly virus for a day or so. There was a story last week about an unfortunate history teacher in Paris who was beheaded by an individual apparently influenced by the social media rantings of the father one of the hapless decapitee’s pupils, who was incensed that in a civics class, the teacher had the audacity to show his pupils cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. The deranged headhunter obviously decided that decapitation was the surest way to exact revenge. Well, at least it took our minds off the main news of the day, which has been the same for the past eight months.
So, if you don’t watch news on TV, what do you do? Well, you can be entertained by documentaries and things like that. A friend, who shall remained unnamed, suggested that I might like to watch “The Trump Show”, a documentary on BBC2. Actually, she didn’t actually suggest that I watch it; she just told me that she had binged on the first two episodes so I thought I’d give it a try. My goodness! I thought I understood that things were pretty bad and mad in the White House but if this is anything to go by, it’s beyond imagination. Trump is depicted as a Mafia godfather (but American, first, you understand) who lives in Bedlam (there is such a place, officially Bethlem Royal Hospital, a.k.a. St Mary Bethlehem, Bethlehem Hospital) and it is a psychiatric hospital in London. Its famous history has inspired several horror books as well as the current White House). In this madhouse, the present occupant, the President of the United States, runs a theatre of the absurd for the “outmates”, several tens of millions of Twitter followers (also commonly known as twits) who believe his every word—religiously. To say that it was shocking would be the grossest of gross understatements!
Meanwhile, back to Covid-19 for it is what takes up so much of our time. There is an interesting drama playing itself out here in the UK, which was resolved yesterday, in which the Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson and his chief enforcer, Mr. Gove, seem to have decided that Greater Manchester should be “elevated” (or demoted) to Tier Three, in other words that the restrictions of movement, on exercising, on drinking and all that should be tightened. This is where Liverpool already is and includes no mixing indoors or outdoors in hospitality venues or private gardens, no more than six people together in outdoor public spaces like parks, pubs and bars not serving food will remain closed and no travel will be allowed onto or out of the area. Tough indeed. Mr. Johnson says he doesn’t want a countrywide lockdown but that’s the way he seems to be moving, albeit piecemeal.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Mr. Andy Burnham, who had been the Secretary of State for Health about a decade ago, was and perhaps still is holding out for more cash from central government. But if I heard him correctly on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, he seemed to be saying that there was no need for Manchester to be downgraded to “Tier Three” as Intensive Care wards in hospitals were not overcrowded and the increase in the number new cases was related to the return of students the universities, most of whom, should they contract the virus will hardly need hospital treatment. However, Messrs. Johnson & Gove seemed to disagree but if they want that Greater Manchester be locked down, Mr. Burnham wants better compensation for lower paid workers. (I had lunch with Mr. Gove once and he seemed a decent chap but now I’m not so sure.) Anyway, as Tuesday progressed, Mr. Johnson used his prime ministerial prerogative and placed Manchester where he wanted it to be.
Israel has slowly started to emerge from its second lockdown, with kindergartens and creches opening and Grades 1-4 following, hopefully, in a fortnight. The Prime Minister, as is his wont, has been patting himself on his shoulders for the success of the second lockdown, at least as compared with the earlier one. Of course, the fact that he was responsible for overseeing the emergence from the first lockdown seems to have been forgotten and he has taken to blaming the Opposition for not doing enough to support the government in its current effort. The fact that the “Independent sector” of he educational system (the Strictly Orthodox) opened their schools and study seminaries in contradiction to the rules laid down by the government and the Ministry of Health seems not to be on his mind. It’s actually scandalous. It’s beginning to look like the Prime Minister’s shine has been badly tarnished this time and that the shots are being called by a 92-year old rabbi who is ill with COVID-19, deaf, and needs nursing care rather than the 70-year old Prime Minister for whom there is no alternative. What a mess!
Enough! Time for some photographs.
I eventually managed to get out and about, taking myself to the Tate Modern, a space that always amazes me, to see one of their current exhibitions, pictures by Andy Warhol. I had asked a friend the pervious week what was the best way to get out and about in London during these times in which, as Seán O’Casey’s Captain Boyle in Juno and the Paycock put it, “The world is in a terrible state of chassis”. I had been using the rental company Uber for short trips but she told me that the buses are OK and that the Underground, if I were to travel outside of “rush hour”, would be fairly empty. And so it turned out to be. The train at 10 a.m. was sparsely populated with a group of masked passengers, some of them gloved, and by the time we had reached Leicester Square at 10.20, usually a fairly busy station even at that time, three or four passengers got off and none got on, so I decided I’d better take the photograph. I was in two minds as to whether to request the one remaining passenger besides myself if she wouldn’t mind alighting at the next station so that I could make it a more dramatic picture but then I thought that that might be somehow misinterpreted so I left things as they were.
The Warhol exhibition at the Tate Modern was, to my uncultured mind, a disappointment. But then, I suppose it was always going to be like that because how many cans of Campbell’s soup, Marilyn Monroes and Elvis Presleys can you see when you’ve seen them all before?
But I’m always in awe of space at the Tate Modern, the Turbine Hall of what had been in the Bankside Power Station, providing space for the sorts of things that really don’t fit anywhere else.
As it was a nice day, after the Tate, I decided to walk past St. Paul’s Cathedral, along Ludgate Hill to The Strand and Aldwych, familiar from a sabbatical stay at LSE 35 years ago where I caught the 168 bus home. The walk had started at the Tate and then across the Millennium Bridge to the cathedral.
My second venture to something “cultural” was an early morning visit to the National Gallery on Monday, which featured an exhibition of works by Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter of the early 17th century, now considered one of the most accomplished artists of her time, initially working in the style of Caravaggio. Many of her paintings feature women from myths, allegories, and the Bible, including victims, suicides, and warriors. They’re subjects that we’ve all become familiar with but in her paintings, painted from a woman’s point of view, they are nothing short of stunning (and most of the canvasses are large), and many of them pretty gory, too.
There are several self-portraits that I couldn’t take my eyes off…
… and there was one, in particular, Judith and her Maindservant from 1625, on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, in which the lighting was so stupendous that I just stood and stared at it for several minutes before moving on. But this being Coronatimes, when I asked if I could back into the room in which it hung (two rooms back) to view it again, I was informed that because the gallery was operating a one-way system and that viewers/visitors were admitted in quarter-hour slots, if I wanted to see it again, I would have to exit and rejoin the line of others who wished to view the paintings a second time. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in and it was worth it!
Exiting the gallery and making my way towards Haymarket, I passed a building (below) that I’d never noticed before. I waited and waited but Borat never appeared!
Walking along Regent Street and Oxford Street was an eye-opener. Many shops closed, including cafés; several boarded up and not looking as if they’re about re-open soon. The streets themselves if not exactly bereft of people were pretty empty. Oxford Street at midday, even on a Monday in October, usually involves a shuffle because of the density of the pedestrians; this time around, the shuffle was caused because of the shuffler’s age.
Walking around the neighbourhood and surrounding areas, it’s possible to feel the effects of Coronavirus, lockdowns and other restrictions. Its affects almost everybody and everything.
Nevertheless, the trees on Hampstead Heath and Primrose Hill and everywhere close by seem to be doing their “autumn thing”.
And while doing some local shopping and waiting for a bus, just as I was about to board it, phone and shopping bag in hand, I managed to photograph this advertisement on the side of the bus stop. I thought I’d seen some interesting signs over the years but this one (the quality of the picture is somewhat lacking) made me laugh out loud. (I don’t know what the bus driver thought of me!). And I have arthritis in my thumbs!
I sent the picture to a friend in the USA who is familiar with London and within five minutes he responded with: “Don’t you know the “Shit London” picture books?” and I had to admit that I didn’t. So, off to check on Amazon, which resulted in yet another purchase! In addition to being two books, “Shit London” is also a Facebook group, described by its founder as containing “photographs of the unintentional human comedy that surrounds us in the city. It’s the flotsam and jetsam of city life, the overlooked minutiae, the tragic, the grotesque, and the basest of base. It’s the adapted posters, the dirty joke on the back of a van, the misspelled signs, the glory hole in the public loo, that weird shop down the end of your road, and the knob graffiti strategically placed for maximum effect”.
Watching TV the other say, I came across an interview with the actress (or, as you’re supposed to say these days, the actor) Maureen Lipman. Asked by the interviewer, Mark Lawson, about “being single again after a happy marriage”, i.e. about how she felt after the death of her husband, Jack Rosenthal, she responded with: “Being a widow, you are a refugee in a strange country where you don’t know the rules. People tell you how to … Oh, you’ll be angry for three months and then you be depressed for four … oh, you know … it’s balderdash … you will be as you are.”. Well three months have passed by already and to my mind, Maureen’s description is about right. I can’t believe where the time has gone. It seems both like only yesterday and also a long time ago simultaneously. But “you will be as you are” seems to be more or less it.
As an extra, I’ve included the Introduction to a “memory book” that I’ve been writing on and off for the past 10 months. It’s more or less complete except for a final proofreading. I suppose that as I wrote it mainly for myself and my children and grandchildren, I can’t really imagine that a commercial publisher would be interested in it and I don’t think I have the patience to do the rounds of publishers trying to find out. I had thought of putting up an single chapter with each blog post over the next few months and I still might but on second thoughts, if you read this and feel like you’d like to read the whole lot, drop me a line and I’ll send you a PDF of what there is.