Birthday Surprise

Like many people during the last three months I marked a birthday. It was one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays (no need to mention which one!) and the small treat organised by my daughter was cancelled due to you know what.

Hand painted DMs.

Being furloughed from work and locked down in London she was unable to travel to Ipswich to make a visit (unfortunately her name isn’t Dominique). However, she did find she had more time on her hands than expected and decided to make up for the cancelled event with a surprise gift instead.

Unbeknown to me and through a series of seemingly random and cryptic messages, she deduced that my current favourite colours are green, lilac, turquoise and gold.

I was also sent a sketch ‘for my opinion’ under the ruse of entering a competition being run by Dr Martens. It never crossed my mind she was painting a pair for me.

Painting Dr Martens shoes.

So, when the postie knocked loudly on my door and was already back in his van waving at me as I opened the front door, I was genuinely surprised to see a random, unexpected parcel on my doorstep. And, even more surprised when I opened it to find these gorgeous, colourful shoes inside – painted especially for me.

Lockdown trim

Although it looks as if more and more shops and services will be reopening through June, hairdressers will not be amongst them. Personally, I am not that bothered about my hair as it’s usually an unruly mess or partially tamed into a French pleat. Here is a confession, as it happens I have been known in the past to give my hair a light trim much to the consternation of my hairdresser.

For me and my hair there always comes that moment when I suddenly notice it’s too long, it’s a nuisance and it’s time to phone the hairdressers for an appointment.

However, as we all know at the moment if you don’t have a household member who is artistic and creative, or simply competent with scissors, it’s a selfie-haircut for you. Naturally, I have had a go at mine. It’s okay, but I can already hear my hairdresser saying, “You’ve been cutting your own hair again, haven’t you? . . . ”

But this time I am sure she will be adding, “. . . I am not really surprised as EVERYBODY has been ‘cutting’ their hair!”

I was amazed that it looks reasonably even and level-ish. (I used the ‘method’ where you divide your hair in half down the back of your head, pull half to left and chop, then the other half to right and chop. Job done.)

Now, here is one final thought, when I do get an appointment and visit the hairdressers, will she be talking to me through a face mask as I reply through mine. Will this be the new normal? If so, I think our eyes and eyebrows will be doing a lot more work!

Remember When

Remember when a saunter down the Strand meant dodging the crowds

and hurrying across to the station meant sidestepping day-trippers.

Remember when tourists clambered onto repurposed Routemasters

and taxis queued across Westminster Bridge.

Remember when cruise ships docked at Liverpool appearing to dwarf the Liver Building

and flying out of Heathrow was being one in 78 million (per year).

But, most of all, remember when spending sunny days with visiting family was just . . . . quietly pleasurable and unremarkable.

Thank You

We are most definitely living through strange times. Or, perhaps, not if you look back across the centuries. Maybe it’s just our 21st-century, developed-world mode of living that has encouraged us to become more and more over-confident in the abilities of medical science and technology to overcome any ‘surprise’ new disease. Worryingly, according to the well-informed Bill Gates, it is unlikely that an effective vaccination will be widely available for at least 18 months.

Drawing out text is certainly not one of my talents!

And, only today all over the news (here in the UK) there have been discussions that it may well become commonplace when out and about in public to wear face masks in the same way that it is the accepted norm in countries like Japan.

At present, for most of us, following the lockdown rules and helping those we can in our immediate ‘socially distancing’ circle is the best we can do. And, of course, we can also thank those professional NHS staff, care home workers and all those employed turning up to perform essential roles. I don’t know if you have seen, but various artists have also shown their thanks by offering designs for those stuck at home to colour-in or adapt.

There was this design on the Arts page of the BBC website from Sir Michael Craig-Martin.

Then I saw that Damien Hirst had also produced a design. This too is available to download from his website.

But naturally I was always going to be doing my own version.

Typography’s a bit wobbly, but I think you get the idea.

I have painted my thanks and I’ve hung it my bay window. I may not be a famous artist and this contribution may not be as big as some of the banners I’ve seen round Ipswich, but it’s certainly bright and cheerful .

It’s sort of a rainbow . . . there’s lots of flowers . . . and if you look very closely there is one butterfly (honestly).

Of course at the moment there’s not much vehicular traffic, but my road has become part of a popular route for joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and people strolling through for their one hour of exercise in the sunshine. Quite a few of our local residents have tried to lift the somewhat gloomy air by filling their windows with rainbows and teddy bears (the bears are there for those on the Bear Hunt!) and somebody has even painted a full-colour, gloss paint rainbow across the road. Strange times indeed.

A moment for a little reflection

The UK is now in lockdown, more or less. Everybody who can works from home and all non essential trips out of your house are prohibited, although, as yet, we don’t have the military on the streets enforcing these restrictions. With the ensuing quiet I have found myself more reflective than usual.

Now here’s a flitting stream of consciousness: . . . how did we get here . . . who is marshalling the NHS response . . . oh yes, that bloke who looks like a rabbit in the headlights, what’s his name . . . Hancock, yes, Matt Hancock . . . isn’t he the MP for West Suffolk, yes he is . . . other side of Bury St Edmunds . . . mmm, Bury . . . I wonder whether Blackthorpe Barn will run its Christmas Craft Fair later this year . . . that part of Suffolk is beautiful in winter . . . melancholy Suffolk . . . melancholy pines . . . ah the lonely Lady Drury and the Hawstead Panels.

Part of Lady Drury’s painted closet originally at Hawstead Place, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Now there was a woman who knew about reflection and meditation and solitude. Her solo endeavours, her painted closet, installed in the now temporarily closed Christchurch Mansion, is a visual expression of living a contemplative life.

The first scarf I sold from my online boutique back in 2013.

I have not been spending this disconcerting time on too much introspection, although I have been slowly working my way through my thousands of photographs, a process which turns out is intermittently thought-provoking. During this task I have come across pictures of earlier work I had completely forgotten as well as old rather poor quality photographs that I took when I first launched my online shop back in July 2013.

Another early piece I had forgotten about from 2013 inspired by a Wedgwood Fairyland lustreware candlestick.

One or two of the old photos had captured a look, an expression that was worth saving. Six or seven years ago, and particularly before my week’s photography course, I hadn’t realised how much tidying up, enhancing and, well to put it bluntly, cheating could be achieved with Photoshop.

Some light touching-up and colour adjustment using Photoshop.
Two old photographs merged with the help of Photoshop – obvious cheating!

Nowadays, with a solid five years’ plus of amateur experience under my belt, I am so much better at getting the photograph I want (eventually), but sometimes the circumstances defeat my grand intentions. This was the case on a visit last month to the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ Museum. Not quite the tightly focussed, intriguing image I was hoping for, but I can always blame the delicate distortions of the fine, antique eighteenth-century mirror.

Last month, February 2020, distorted reflections. An 18th-century mirror hanging in the ‘Handel & Hendrix in London’ museum, Brook Street, London, W1K 4HB.

where angels fear to tread

On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.

Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.

Mr James McAvoy, Hollywood A-Lister at the top of his game, guarantees sell-out performances.

This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.

Microphones featured prominently in the minimal staging.

Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)

I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.

We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.

And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.

I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.

If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.

This West End run of Cyrano de Bergerac closes on Saturday, 29th February 2020.

The 2020 Long Frocks Forecast

Over the last century there has been an amusing notion in the West that the length of women’s skirts is seen as an indicator of the state of the wider economy – the Hemline Index. A quick perusal of a variety of contemporary news and blog commentaries discussing this idea would suggest that slightly more commentators concur with the original proposition that skirts get shorter in good times than the reverse. Although the counter view that skirts actually get shorter in challenging times also had its supporters with more than just economic explanations for the perceived phenomenon.

It is just as you would expect, for every set of data there is a different interpretation of the data with as many different explanations as people doing the interpreting.

But I like the old, traditional version. The roaring twenties gave us higher hemlines around knee-height, with women’s calves on display for the first time in millennia. This period of affluence (for some anyway) was followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s with hemlines sinking back to around the ankles. The decades past until the Swinging Sixties brought us Mary Quant and the mini skirt, a truly short skirt for a time of optimism and booming markets.

Even mini kilts for wee girls – my sister and I 1969

Naturally, within a decade the hemlines dived again along with the world’s economy as the 1973 Oil Crisis hit. It was the era of the maxi skirt, and the hems of the Laura Ashley dresses, for example, hit the ground at the same time as major world economies tanked.

This all brings me to my recent observations regarding the latest fashion shows for 2020. Just when you think the Climate Crisis is finally at the top of the world’s agenda and the fashion sector is surely facing a time of moderation and sustainability, the runways are bedecked with strangely voluminous, outré and frivolous frocks, but at least as predicted by the Hemline Index, the frocks are indeed floor-length.

It would appear we are heading for some seriously choppy waters. And, as if to confirm this gloomy outlook we have tough and resilient from Jean-Paul Gaultier. In Paris last month he gave us the final show of his 50 year fashion career ending with the closing pair walking down the runway dressed as if they had just arrived from a ‘Mad Max’ dystopian future of climate chaos.

Paul Mason aka Fashion Santa pictured above in final look at Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Show Jan 22., 2020 alongside fellow model Catherine Loewe. Photo Credit: Jonas Gustavsson/Sipa USA)

Finding a Heart of Silk

Five hidden hearts for Valentine’s.

A light-hearted post for next week’s Valentine’s Day.

One silk heart is hidden, more or less, in each image!

Barge Victor on the Ipswich Waterfront.
One of Wolsey’s Angel.
A late-summer flower arrangement.
The Moot Hall, Aldeburgh.
Medieval stained glass, Long Melford.

You probably don’t need the solutions . . . .

. . . but here they are anyway.

The Ark has Landed

Last year, on the 9th November, this large version of a Noah’s Ark arrived in Ipswich, with the aid of a tug, and docked at the Orwell Quay down on the Waterfront.

It is big, it is very dark and it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a beautiful boat. The idea for this project came from the Dutch TV producer, Sir Aad Peters, and his boat, originally from the Netherlands, has visited Denmark, Norway and Germany, with this visit to Ipswich marking its first time in the UK.

It is a 70 metre wooden version of Noah’s Ark and also houses a floating exhibition of Bible stories. According to the local press, the boat features a 12ft tall Tree of Life that ‘grows’ up through the four floors of the vessel.

I haven’t been to see the exhibition as it isn’t my kind of thing being neither art nor a collection of historical, cultural artefacts. Plus, it is £16.50 for adults and £9.50 for children (4-13 years old) whereas Norwich Cathedral is free to visit despite its running costs of about £4,000 a day. And, even Canterbury Cathedral (running costs of approximately £18,000 a day) with its wealth of medieval culture of national and international significance, is only £12.50 for adults.

The online promotional information claims the vessel is a half-sized replica of Noah’s original vessel as described in the Book of Genesis.

14. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

16. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof;  with lower, second and third stories shalt thou make it.

17. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth . . . . 

Genesis, Chapter 6, Verses 14-17. The Bible, Authorised King James Version.

That’s clear then, its 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. Although, I do wonder quite how this is a ‘replica’ when there is no description in the text of the boat’s shape neither of its overall appearance.

Interestingly, twenty years ago the scientist and marine explorer Dr Robert Ballard found evidence of a great flood that occurred in the Black Sea area around 5,000 BC. There is also evidence of human occupation of that area and of a world subsequently drowned by a great flood. However, so far, no ark or ark remains, or ark preserved impressions have been found.

Noah, Gilgamesh and other flood myths are most likely explanations of actual geological episodes that occurred in times before evidence-based, scientific accounts became available. If you have a look around the Web, it appears that finding a real, original Noah’s Ark is of considerable importance to some folks. However, in the meantime people can visit ark interpretations such as the one on the Waterfront or watch Darren Aronofsky’s film, ‘Noah’, with its Biblical accurately-sized Ark that has a very different appearance and doesn’t really look like a boat at all. I suppose if you think about it, the Ark only had to float as it wasn’t built for sailing.

Just to finish, here’s a photograph of a fine, stylish craft also anchored in the Ipswich harbour which was decorated very attractively for the recent Festive season.

Boxes on Boxing Day

The day after Christmas Day in the UK is known as Boxing Day. Why is it called Boxing Day? Well, the clue is in the name! However, it’s nothing to do with the sport of boxing, but everything to do with boxes.

And, no, that’s not packing boxes or even either associations with the ‘box’ room. (That’s the tiny, upstairs room often found in a traditional Victorian terraced house).

But, as with quite a few Christmas traditions in the UK, boxes for Boxing Day is a Victorian invention. During the reign of Queen Victoria household servants were given a day’s holiday on the day after Christmas and as well as receiving a boxed gift from their employers often went back home to their families bearing gifts in a box. And what might have been in such a box . . .

Well, it might have been tinned food. These old tins for Oxo and corned beef are on display at Ipswich Museum. Tinned products along with tinned fruit had become familiar food staples during the course of the nineteenth century. Such preserved food could well have been part of a such a Christmas box. How times have changed, a gift of food these days is more likely to be a very non-essential product such as luxury chocolates.

As we face the harsh truths of global warming I wonder how many of the other festive traditions – Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas crackers, puddings, pies, fowls, etc, beloved of the comfortably off Victorian, will no longer be considered sustainable.

Anyway, finishing on a positive note, one type of Victoriana which has thankfully mostly melted away into history is this form of the sentimentalisation of childhood, and, along with it this type of kitsch.

Civic Spaces at Christmas Time

Last year at Christmas time the Cornhill in Ipswich was a public space that, although newly refurbished, was a cluttered muddle.

The Cornhill, Ipswich – December 2018. The Christmas tree squeezed in next to the new sculptural installation – The Plinths.

The splendid Town Hall and Corn Exchange was dressed with lights and the traditional, tall Christmas tree was erected, but any civic grandeur was lost with an ill-considered large new sculptural artwork and an additional seasonal shopping marquee plonked in the middle of the concourse.

During the course of 2018 there had been an extensive remodelling and refurbishment of the Cornhill as part of £3.6 million revamping of the town centre. Previously in front of the Town Hall the old paved pedestrian area that hosted the market stalls had sloped down towards the Town Hall. These stalls have now been moved to a pedestrian street to the side of the Town Hall, whilst to the front the Town Hall most of the sloping concourse has gone to be replaced with steps and a level area with a pavement fountain arrangement. Surprisingly and pleasingly, the new steps provided a good vantage point to view the youngsters participating in the Global Strike that took place earlier this autumn.

Global Strike, 20 September 2019

And, incidentally, whilst enjoying the passion and energy of the striking youngsters, I noticed the less than impressive sculpture ‘The Plinths’, often referred to by the locals as Cornhenge, was no more. It had not been well received (that’s a polite understatement) and despite costing in the region of £45,000 (according to the local paper), it has been removed. Its departure has left us with a clear view of the Town Hall and a more grand and impressive yet welcoming civic space.

Of course, with the sculpture gone it has also meant that the purely functional and expedient move to squeeze in more retail opportunities into the area (for example that seasonal Christmas marquee) have also been dropped.

However, we do not get off that lightly. In what looks like a last minute desperate decision the marquee has been squeezed into Lloyds Avenue.

Seasonal Christmas marquee crammed into Lloyds Avenue, Ipswich.
Bit of a tight fit.

One positive thought for this seasonal period is at least Ipswich doesn’t yet suffer from the faux Christmas Markets that have sprung up round the country in a pale imitation of the traditional community Weihnachtsmärkte of Germany.

That’s enough of the complaints, Scrooge has left the building, and instead let’s feast our eyes on a very attractive display of lights decorating the Town Hall.

Or, take an evening stroll down the Buttermarket with its eclectic architectural mix of buildings enhanced by an elegant display of Christmas lights.