Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Open House London: An Architectural Wonderland

Last weekend, thousands of people queued to see historic landmarks across the city. Battersea Power Station was obviously going to be a big hit for many, but little did I realise how many. An estimated 40,000 people visited the power station in two days, with 20,000 queuing on the Sunday.

I dedicated my Sunday to Open House. I had a quick scout on Twitter to see the feedback of people from the Saturday viewing and it was reported that people could be waiting for up to 5 hours to get in. Taking into account that I would arrive at 11, it didn't seem possible that I would be able to get in to the building before it closed at 4 (in actual fact it only took about 2 hours for people to get in).

Instead, I decided to get as many buildings in as possible and below is a summary of my trip around some famous landmarks.

Beaconsfield: The Former Lambeth Rugged School 

Beaconsfield Art Gallery provides a creative space and describes itself as occupying 'a niche between the institution, the commercial and the alternative’. It was founded in 1995 in the remaining wing, the girls wing, of the former Lambeth Ragged School, built in 1849-1851 by Henry Beaufoy.

 Lambeth Ragged School

The school was one of nearly 200 ragged schools, so called because of the 'ragged' appearance of the vagrant children that attended them. Ragged schools provided education and food for poor children. The schools gave them basic instruction, in often makeshift accommodation, and helped them find work, or even to emigrate.

 Beaconsfield as it stands

Henry Mayhew, writing in the Morning Chronicle, 29 March 1850, spoke to an officer with experience of attending a ragged school, and noted:

'At the street Ragged School (Lambeth), none live in the house, but the attendance in the winter averages about 400 boys and girls every Sunday evening. The gentlemen who manage the Ragged School do everything they can to instruct and encourage the children in well-doing; they make them presents of Testaments and Bibles and give them occasional tea parties. In fact, everything is done to improve them in the school. The patience of the teachers is surprising. The boys and girls are separated in school; there are more boys than girls-perhaps 300 boys to 100 girls. The girls are better behaved than the boys; they are the children of very poor people in the neighbourhood, such as the daughters of people selling fruit in the street, and such like. Some few years ago I had some inquiries to make on the subject, and found several children of street-beggars there.'

Unfortunately, the gallery seems to have lost this rich history in an attempt to display creative art. This was in the form of four speakers that were set up in the middle of the school hall, which did not emit any sound (it turns out that they weren't turned on properly, as a visitor pointed out when we exited the building). There was no sense of the story that this beautiful old building and the creaking wooden floors could tell. It would have been better to recreate the ragged school and use it as an educational museum for school trips, or as a gallery housing more than one artist.

It was interesting to read about but, for me, the installation failed to fill any 'niche'.

UK Supreme Court 

Next stop was the Supreme Court, which is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases, and for criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population 

The court room 1, 2 and 3 were open and the library; all of which were fascinating to look around. I felt a brief sense of self-importance as I sat in a chair where someone had previously made life-changing decisions. In the library, it was interesting to note that the 'stone' ceiling was in fact wood but painted to look like stone. 

The 'stone' ceiling of the library

They had a few important cases on display, one particular one on women's rights interested me the most. The 'Persons Case' was raised by Henrietta Muir Edwards and four other woman in 1929 against the Canadian government. The case began as a reference case in the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that women were not 'qualified persons' and so were ineligible to sit in the Senate. The case then went to the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council in the UK, at that time the court of last resort for Canada within the British Empire and Commonwealth. The Judicial Committee overturned the Supreme Court of Canada's decision. This case established that Canadian women could be appointed as senators and had the same rights as men.

'A heavy burden lies on an appellant who seeks to set aside a unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court, and this Board will only set aside such a decision after convincing argument and anxious consideration, but having regard

(1) To the object of the Act, vix., to provide a constitution for Canada, a responsible and developing State; 
(2) That the word "person” is ambiguous and may include members of either sex; 
(3) That there are sections in the Act above referred to which show that in some cases the word “person” most include females; 
(4) That in some sections the words “male persons” is expressly used when it is desired to confine the matter in issue to males, and 
(5) To the provisions of the Interpretation Act; 

their Lordships have come to the conclusion that the word “persons” in section 24 includes members both of the male and female sex and that, therefore, the question propounded by the Governor-General must be answered in the affirmative and that women are eligible to be summoned to and become members of the Senate of Canada, and they will humbly advise His Majesty accordingly.' 

Thank god for 'persons' such as Henrietta Edwards.

Foreign Commonwealth Office

On we went to the FCO, a department of the government responsible for protecting and promoting UK interests worldwide. It was created in 1968 by merging the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office.

The stale looking carpets and institutional feel of the interior made it seem like a common room for retired public school almuni. 

However, the rooms for entertaining guests had been renovated and redecorated in lively colours. The central hall, Dubar Court, was the most impressive. It used to be an open court but had a glass ceiling added to protect it from England's unpredictable weather. 

 Dubar court

Banqueting House, Whitehall

The Banqueting House, Whitehall, is the only remaining component of the Palace of Whitehall. The building is important in the history of English architecture as the first building to be completed in the neo-classical style.

The most controversial element to the building's history is the execution of King Charles I, who was beheaded on the scaffold erected at the front in January 1649.

Charles I was led through the banqueting hall before his head was severed from his body after being accused of high treason. Apparently, he took one last look at the beautifully painted canvasses on the ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens. Ironically, when these paintings were first put in place, banqueting could no longer take place as the smoke from the candles used to light the room began to tarnish the ceiling.

Charles I's severed head


Walking along Lower Thames Street, you would never realise that your feet are a few metres from some of London's best preserved Roman remains. The Billingsgate Roman bathhouse was first discovered in 1848. The remains are not open to the public due to a lack of funding, so it was a rare treat to witness the ancient rubble.

The Roman baths as they are

 The Roman baths as they would have looked

The ruins are the remains of a bath house that were attached to a Roman's house, who is assumed to be someone of importance as it would have orginially been right on the river front - the centre of trade and the place of entrance for important regal visitors to the land. 

This ended the day perfectly.

Overall the day was fun, free, entertaining and educational. I will be doing the London Open House again next year, but will be sure to try and avoid the queues. As a final note, Open House is also available across the country and across the world, so keep a look out for next year and maybe make a holiday of it!

Where: London
Price: Free
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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lightning Child: The Barmy Bacchae

Last night, Shakespere’s Globe boasted its first musical in the form of a psychedelic patchwork of Euripides’ Bacchae. Modern stories are interwoven with a camp and crude narrative (by Che Walker and Arthur Darvill) of the ancient Greek tragedy of King Pentheus of Thebes and his punishment by the god Dionysus because of his refusal to worship.

‘Musical’ is not a term that marries well with this performance of discordant songs and tribal calls. Similarly, parts of the performance could do with fine-tuning, with a few actors stumbling over lines, clumsy choreography and an epic running time of 3 hours, which must have taken its toll on the groundlings.

However, the sultry chorus and flamboyant costumes juxtaposed with the serious subplots of heroin addicts, Billie Holiday, and an obsessive violinist, brought home the themes of love, excess and addiction. The gender-confused and fast-paced storytelling suited the nature of the open-air theatre, where catcalls and wolf-whistles from the audience added to the atmosphere. Similarly, strong performances from Clifford Samuel, playing Pentheus, and Philip Cumbus and Harry Hepple as the two druggies, Drax and Shug, kept the audience engaged.

We are told by the narrator to let the play flow over us and leave it to the time spent on our train home to suss out the real meaning. By the time they reach their front door, it is doubtful that the audience are much the wiser, but they have had a hugely entertaining evening complete with gold thongs, cross-dressing, deer carcasses and foul-mouthed revelry.

Where: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Price: From £5 for standing ticket
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cat got your duck tongue?

I love trying new things. I have eaten ostrich burgers in South Africa, fried flies in Nigeria, mushed-up dates passed from hand to hand in Oman but, as it turns out, you don't have to fly across the world to try some interesting foreign dish. Look no further, for example, than China Town in Soho, London.

Here, a plethora of oriental eateries are waiting to be tried. I tried the Chinese restaurant Super Star on Lisle street and, not being a connoisseur of Asian delicacies, had the good fortune to be with people who had tried and tested this establishment. From the outside, the restaurants all look much of a muchness and as we wandered upstairs to our table, it appeared that it was a similar story inside.

The paper table cloths and laminated menus do not reek of sophistication but glancing around you can see that the place is home to many Chinese natives as well as local Londoners to give it that air of quality.

We tried a variety of delicious dim sum, parcels of steamed rice, a look-a-like sausage role that was in fact pork in a delicious sweet sauce surrounded by puff pastry.

After many comments to the waiter about the time it was taking for the food to arrive at the table, half an hour from my last mouthful, a platter of what looked like shriveled brown cockroaches arrived at the table. I wasn't told what they were and dived in. I would have thought duck tongues would be succulent and juicy, as it turns out they are chewy and boney. But, hey, at least I can say I tried it.

The pièce de résistance, however, was the lau sah bao. It is a sort of light fluffy bread with a warm coconut custard centre. It looks a bit like an egg but tastes delicious. I could have had several. Its sweetness finished off the meal nicely, although, apparently, it is meant to come with the main dishes. It was in fact ordered all together, but as you may have noticed from my subtle hint earlier, service was not Super Star's forte.

Looks like an egg, tastes like heaven

It was a delicious meal and not too pricey but was lacking somewhat in speed and style. However, it did provided another culinary tale to tell.

Where: China Town, Soho
Price: About £20 a head
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Monday, September 16, 2013

A cultured weekend part 2: thespian lover

Next on the list for my weekend wander was the Theatre and Performance Tour at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Admittedly, the main reason I chose this tour was that it was one of the free ones on offer. I also studied Drama and Theatre Arts at university, and so have a soft spot for all things theatrical.

As per the instructions on the website, I gathered at the meeting point at the back of the main hall. I always feel that the V&A never gets quite as much attention as it's other cultural cousin's in the Kensington vicinity; the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. This shouldn't be the case as the gallery owns over 4.5 million items and has undergone a £150 million renovation.

 The entrance hall

I was meeted and greeted by our tour guide, Alex, who would be expertly narrating us around the theatre collection for the next hour. The collection was donated by Gabrielle Enthoven, theatre historian, actor and playwright, in 1924, who continued to add to it until her death in 1950. However, what saddened me slightly, is that, due to space limitations, about two thirds is stored in a warehouse.*Cue multimillion pound donation*

The tour provided an insight into the creative minds behind various objects in the collection. The main attraction at the entrance is a life-size rhinoceros, originally used as a costume for the play Rhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco, which was a play criticising the mass adoption of Facism before the beginning of World War II. The rhino covers a bicycle-like contraption that is used by two people housed inside the front and back end of the animal to move the beast across the stage.

A rhinoceros, the centre piece for Rhinocéros

We went through the history of theatre including different productions of Shakespeare, Victorian musical halls, marionette theatre and performance censorship imposed by the Lord Chamberlain, which, quite shockingly, wasn't lifted until 1968. Up until that point nudity on stage was very much frowned upon, although interestingly, standing still while naked was deemed to be 'art' and passed censorship, but as soon as a finger or head lolled into action, the scene was scrapped.

We moved on to the 'performance' element of the tour. This covered costume design for famous pop artists like Adam Ant, Mick Jagger (who has the smallest waist ever seen on a man!) and Elton John. There is even a full size replica of Kylie Minogue's backstage dressing room, which, being the diva that she is, was set up exactly the same wherever she was performing in the world.

Alex brought the hour to an end next to a projection of different performances and famous set designs. After saying goodbye, we sat and watched 3-minute clips of some great British performances including Jerusalem, Billy Elliot and Yes, Prime Minister. These are all available on request to watch at Blythe House at Olympia, something, that would have been hugely beneficial to me as a student, if only I had known.

I really recommend this to anyone at a loss for something to do for an hour. It is free, fun and educational. What more could you want?

Where: South Kensington
Price: Free, 2pm everyday until the 31st December 2013
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A cultured weekend part 1: pampered pooches

On Friday evening, I had been so busy writing about renal failure (the day job) that I had not realised that my weekend was stretched open before me, baron and empty of things to do.

Having had a quick look on twitter at the various things people were proposing (quick plug: follow me on @a_lemon_entry) and the fact that I had a birthday voucher to spend in Topshop, I chose Knightsbridge as the place for my Saturday excitement. 

With my housemate in tow, I pottered along Brompton road, feeling somewhat like a poor cousin from the country in an Austen novel visiting shiny, preened, urban relatives (the Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger clientele with their pearls and overpowering designer perfume). It was fun nonetheless, and the Topshop here was a far cry from the one in Brixton that I am used to shopping at and there was no fear of being mugged when I stepped out with my new purchase. 

We moved on to Harrods, ohhing and ahhhing at the beautiful building and stepped inside to a pristine white cosmetics hall. My 'poor cousin' image felt like it was rapidly descending the hierarchy to 'street urchin'. I tried not to touch anything, or smudge the polished services. 

The endless racks of clothes and bags are quite daunting; I am a tomboy at heart and I class high-fashion as something that costs more than £60. We got to a lift and I was automatically drawn to two levels: toy kingdom and pet kingdom. The lift, might I add, was an artwork in it's own right, looking like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate factory - I recommend going to Harrods purely for this reason. 

We shot up to pet kingdom and it didn't disappoint. There were diamond encrusted dog collars, sheepskin four poster beds for dogs the size of large rats, and countless gadgets and gizmos for darling pampered pooches. We cooed over some beautiful black and white-spotted cocker spaniels, on sale for a mere £1500 per mutt. 

The best part, without doubt, was the beauty parlour where you can stand and watch a dog beautician cut, shampoo and blow dry the most ridiculous-looking queen of a dog. I am sure I saw it volunteer a paw for a manicure. I couldn't help thinking what the owner must be like. A bitch, much like her dog I presume. 

We then got back into the magical lift, and arrived at toy kingdom. An opportunity to indulge in childish fantasies. We played with fake snow, took part in our own robot wars, cast a few spell's with Voldemort's wand and stared enviously at the most beautiful dolls' house. 

It was time for our next cultural appointment, but before we left we had to visit Christmas World (it's only 99 days until the big day you know); we took one look at the piles of candy canes and flashing baubles and ran out the door.....  I feel painfully sorry for the staff working there who have to endure countless hours of 'Jingle bells'. 

Even if you are only going to look and stifle laughs at the people who can actually afford to buy a diamond-encrusted cat litter tray, it is worth the trip. For those of you who own five houses in Sandbanks, please take your pug to the Harrods hairdresser, or if not, I will valiantly take their place, my hair needs a bit of spruce up.....

Where: Knightsbridge
Price: From £1.50 for a piece of salami to a small house deposit for an emerald locket. 
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Say no to Bar Soho

So LGC strikes again. Although, this time many of the members of London Girls' Club couldn't make it, so the four of us that could go decided that we should have a two-strike rule; if you fail to appear two times in a row - you're out.

The others don't know this yet. Well, if you want to make an exclusive cocktail group you have to be ruthless, even if the club consists of your best friends....

Anyway, back to the venue. We chose Bar Soho for our sophisticated, classy and chilled night out with the girls. I can tell you now - sophisticated, classy and chilled out are not three words I would ever use to describe Bar Soho.

When I arrived, I actually realised that I had been here before; a year or so ago I had arrived slightly tipsy* at the end of a date. And that is all the place is good for; a dance at the end of the night when you should have been in bed an hour ago and you won't remember what music was playing or what the place looked like.

The website sends out a message of 'edgy cocktail bar'. However, we arrived at our reserved table (the sign was a nice touch) and could barely hear each other talk over the loud pop music. I fear that I may be sounding like an old woman, but I did go there to actually speak to my friends. However, booze was cheap and happy hour was on until 8. We stuck to red wine and between the four of us it was about £4 for a few glasses (it was 50% off for a bottle of wine if you reserved a table).

Rachel enjoying the sophisticated ambience 

After a couple of hours shouting at each other across the table, it was our cue to leave when the chairs were pushed to the side to form a dance floor and some drinking society had started shuffling to the music. This was compounded by the fact that some drunk Italian student was trying to chat us up demanding we show him pictures of our boyfriends, which we had vehemently decided we had. Whether all of us actually did or not is not the point - it was the "it is girls' night" code and "please-piss-off" hint that we wanted to send out. Plus, it was a Wednesday night, and called me old fashioned but I didn't want to get roaring drunk half way through the week.

We left feeling somewhat cheated by what the place had advertised themselves to be, but by that point I was tipsy again and needed to find a place to dance to music that I wouldn't be able to remember in the morning...

*Incoherently drunk

Where: Soho
Price: Cheap as chips. Happy hour 5pm-8pm everyday. Cocktails £4 at happy hour.
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