Closing Doors

A walk through Marylebone takes in a whole range of the faces of our houses – the doors – and this particularly springy and wealthy neighbourhood offers some of the capital’s finest.  I shall not tell you what medical imperfection led me to Harley Street in the morning of Friday last , but let’s just say I am now blinking through my nose and can’t frown for toffee.  Either way, I was surprised by the advent of the inner London SuperRich door.  The internationally wealthy modern Londoner tends to favour bilious colours (bright purple), frosted glass, as if to imply that the residents are so fascinating that we are drawn to dribble and stare at them through their windows, and massive brick-type slabs of letter box in muted silver.  Brass is absent, being so nineteenth century.  Modern letterboxes of the SuperRich are filled with spiky black bristle, a.k.a. the postman’s nemesis.  Letter boxes are not created anymore with the idea of mail delivery in mind.  They are developed with an eye to them defending against your average millionaire-arms-dealing slayer, or terrorist chap bent on atrocities.  What new doors don’t have is a lovely knocker.

Like a face without a nose, a door without a knocker is a sad thing indeed.  The Georgians and Victorians announced their front doors with beaming brass lumps and bumps that demanded authority and appeared to intimidate.  There was, of course, no need for the knocker to have become obsolete – it requires no batteries, no engineering or maintenance and in the main can be heard anywhere in the house, if you thump it with the desired degree of aplomb.  It also allows the guest to bang out a staccato semaphore of their own in a series of knocks to announce their arrival.    I like this.  It adds a flamboyant tone to one’s visiting.  How often do you stand at someone’s threshold and think : have they heard the bell?  Is the bell broken?  Have I pressed it strongly enough?  Why can’t I hear it?  Is it an inner ear infection?  WHAT?  None of this happens with a lovely knocker.  Bash or bang.  Stand.  Wait.  Simples.  We have, my friends, lost the art of bangery.

Among the scrumptious knockers from Marylebone last Friday were lions, racing dogs, closed metal fists around brass door knockers and a range of peculiar cats, dogs and eagles.  The lions are very popular amongst Georgians, Victorians and BBC costume drama set designers.  It’s not too ostentatious but it has that strange thing of the knocker being suspended from an animal’s mouth.  And a lion is as thoroughly British as a Unicorn, which would be British (if it wasn’t imaginary).    These doors have maintained their nineteenth century letterboxes too, which are minute.  Now some of them have been bought by the SuperDooperRich and they’ve manifested their tasteless crassness over everything.  Doors are very very flat.  Letterboxes are now massive and very  low down in the door – massive because of all the marketing crap our mobile phone provider sends us and low down on the door to ensure maximum biting opportunity by Yorkshire terrier or similar undersized dog with an attitude problem that may lurk behind the grand polished door, salivating at the prospect of a Royal Mail nylon-clad leg.

Will letterboxes go the way of music playing equipment?  Radios were small in the 1950s, enormous in the 1980s, and have now disintegrated into vile virtual devices, on which the data can suddenly disappear, and before you know it you’ve lost that 1980s Bangles playlist you downloaded whilst drunk on hazlenut liquor several months back.   Now we are permanently attached to digital playlists and cannot make one tube journey without them.  Visitors to earth would think that homo sapiens is evolving and we now grow white cables out of our ears.  Is that the way letterboxes are going to go:  massive in the current age but then getting smaller and virtual and require updating?  And I know what you’re thinking – “letters will soon be obsolete!  Silly Bluebird,  so old-fashioned!  Email is all we’ll need!”  Not so.  Ever signed a legal document?  Got married ?  Got divorced ?  Tried to book a burial plot in the local Jewish cemetery?  Tried to convince your Lender to give you a mortgage?  All the important things in life require real documents and the post.  You can’t send a birthday present recorded mail via Hotmail.  We need letterboxes, and will be grateful we don’t have to wear them around our necks and take them everywhere with us, as MiLady Iphone has made us do with our email and Facebook accounts.  Being permanently wired up to everything once felt like a good idea but six months in from my first I-phone ownership?  Well,  I just feel I am wearing my letterbox around my neck anyway and may well make the decision to stick all the correspondence back on my front door where it belongs.  My technological empowerment has led to a personal disempowerment.  It seems all of a sudden, and with much of a muchness, that the blasted world won’t leave me alone.  Back to the post box.  It can all lie on the front door mat until I’m inclined to deal with it.

No professional door holds ballast without a good knocker.  Banging on a black, Marylebone door with a brass knocker makes you feel you are about to enter hallowed legal portals, or at least implies you are dealing with an expensive accountant.  In Harley Street, you pay for the ambience and the wealth of Edwardian certitude as much as you pay for the scan of your jacksie.  After all, a stranger with their hand up you unmentionables is only ever going to be a stranger with their hand up your unmentionables grappling about looking for ovarian lumps.  Does it make it any less undignified if they’re charging you £200 for the privilege?  Or that they have beautiful floral displays on the reception desk from Wild Things of Davies Street? Of course not.   If I’m being charged exorbitant amounts I want to feel like a wealthy Victorian.  I want a door that exudes authority.  A black, old letter box with the words “letterbox” painted onto it – indeed, painted so many times of the years that the words now look as if they’re made from blancmange – I want a door that bangs with a resounding thud, implying that my dental problems are soon to be a thing of the past, or that that pesky affadavit  will be silently signed off in wood-panelled rooms, not a door that closes eerily, independently, with one of those yukky metal fire doors that close more slowly than any door would in normal circumstances.  In a street where people buy new breasts is it too much to ask for a couple of proper knockers occasionally?

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This  blog is updated every Thursday.

3471 miles

Whilst watching YouTube last week, and gurgling appreciation at a Broadway display of a brilliant tap dancing spectacle, the same thought comes into my head as it always does.  The New Yorkers do it better.  They do shows better, they do service better, they do professionalism better, they do confidence better.  They have the musical theatre gene in a way the British don’t.  It’s difficult to quantify but its true.  Especially the section of a show I was watching – which was so quintessentially American that it may as well have been waving a Stars and Stripes flag – a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square about a vast number of Broadway hoofers playing a musical on Times Square.  It’s only right that they should be better than us at that sort of thing.  They invented it.  Along with jazz, it’s one of the comparatively few purely American art forms.

In the last ten years or so – since the beginning of the last cycle of economic boom – it has been acceptable for London and New York to wrestle for the title of hippest, or best, or most perfect city.  This tells you how far London has come.  Twenty five years ago comparing the restaurants, style, financial innovation and downright coolness of New York with London wouldn’t have been considered.  New York was always, always cooler.  New York was just it. It had the edge, the swagger, the sophistication, the cool, it’s wonderful provocative swagger and a gritty glamour that never had to battle with London’s gloomy low skies.  But then something extraordinary happened and London, like the heavy, bullish city it is, rapidly started the close the gap.  New Yorkers used to fear coming to London, as there was never any edible food for them when they got here.  Now London boasts 43 Michelin-starred restaurants to New York’s 39.  London’s City Square Mile became one of the most powerful square miles on earth, more powerful than Wall Street.   London fashion reached an almost 1960s Carnaby Street-esque supremacy, we merged our pretty little city and created a monolith called NyLon, and who would have thought that by March 2007, New York magazine would state “If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century and New York of the twentieth, London is shaping up to be the capital of the 21st.”  (New York magazine, Mar 18, 2007)?

Our supremacy with restaurants and our ridiculously high quality of dining really seems to bother them.  It’s one crown New York never wanted to relinquish.  New Yorkers thought the awfulness of London restaurants were part of our national heritage.  Check out this surprised article on London here entitled Has the Food Over There Really Become Edible?  http://nymag.com/guides/london/29444/.  New York had to work in a different way to develop European sophistication in its restaurant culture.  For sophisticated restaurants; read Europe.  Us Londoners are, on the other hand, so close to Europe that we absorb its influences rapidly and heartily.  In London, European way of life, culture, language and form is the norm.  European sophistication is a thing of reverence in New York – it’s foreign, distinctly unAmerican in its style and cultivation and self-consciously mutates into an art form.   Americans in the main eat too early to be true Europeans anyway.  Londoners take it easily; it’s more natural for us to be Europeans, because we actually are Europeans.

But this week, ever since those tap tap tapping toes bled into my mind on Friday, I have been preoccupied with trying to work it out.  Which is the better City?  Is there such a thing as a better City?  Are we different places?  Are New York and London basically in the same place?  Are we NyLon or , well,  cotton?  Are we all Europeans now, or all Americans?  We’re both damn fine, cool, sexy places my friends.  If the same cliches ring true – in London we have no ventilation or heating on the underground, it is also nigh impossible to get a meal past 11pm on a weekday, unless you happen to be in Frith Street, it rains here but no one ever seems to work out they should put a hat on etc etc – how much have we really changed?   Sitting in Bar Italia yesterday afternoon, in bright, unapologetic sunshine of late September, it did feel like an American autumn, or that silly thing they call it – FALL – as if everything falls down or something.  In England, Autumn smells of bonfires, sausages and Guy Fawkes and rainy Oxford Street on Saturday afternoons.  In New York, autumn smells decisively of tree.  In Bar Italia I was in a urban, Italian space.  Not English.  Not American.  Could be New York.  Could be London.  Could be Abyssinia, before the Italians gave it back.  Could be any lovely city in the world.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s an urban experience in an English speaking country, admittedly one where I don’t have an obligation to tip.  After all, earlier in the day, didn’t I – in a classic New York moment – bump randomly into my sister in law in Regent Street and have a quick lunch, in a scene that could be straight out of a Woody Allen film?  All that was missing was the plaintive black and white film and a trad jazz soundtrack.  Then later in the afternoon I bothered my brother at his West End office, grabbing a coffee and sitting patiently at the pavement table whilst he spent 20 minutes shouting into a phone in the street which – again – is a City experience, as New York as it is London because he talks into his mobile phone all over the planet, it seems.

Of course I went through the inevitable “I’m 22 and I’m going to move to New York!” stage.  Everyone who has ever fallen in love with London and then gone to New York does.  I got it.  I went over at 22, had the piquant experience of sharing a hotel room with my mother and my brother (don’t try it), shopped at Macy’s, saw Christian Slater in a Broadway play, got my face done by MAC at Bloomingdale’s (very late 1990s) and ended up in the East Village at a peculiar club with a load of other Londoners, who told me that the East Village was “a bit like Islington but with Camden market in the middle of it”.  Aha, I thought.  This is the place for me!  I want some of that.    So, the next year I went back.  For two weeks.  And discovered one of the most distressing experiences of New York : a heatwave.

At first I thought I had got on a flight to Singapore, and rounded up in a City atmostphere so cloying I thought someone had melted my kidneys and removed them.  Someone had forgotten to pour the oxygen in.  Why were the natives taking this shimmering, smug smog with shoulder shrugging nonchalance?  How can they stand it?  I realised I had been naive about why the subway was ventilated; it wasn’t because everyone was American and valued excellent customer service.  It was because if it hadn’t been ventilated everyone would basically be dead.  I loped and schlepped along Broadway, diving regularly into department stores, blinking the sweat out of my eyes, purely for the whoooosh! of their air conditionning.  At night in the apartment me and a friend were using on E. 36th Street, I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t sleep because of the sound of the air conditionning unit, which was like sleeping in a one room apartment with an industrial catering size fridge.  It was too noisy to sleep with it on, and too hot to sleep with it off, as we were doused in a pool of humidity.  I couldn’t breathe or think; I hadn’t known heat like this, not in Watford.  The smog stank.  Everything sweated, even the lampposts. No one warned me that when you order a drink in New York, you don’t get our measures.  You get a Gin and Tonic that is half rubbing alcohol and half water.  Ever been drunk in a heatwave on your birthday and have to crawl up six flights of stairs to your apartment weeping with dehydration because the lift is broken?  I have, my friends, and it wasn’t pleasant.    The next time I went to New York it was January, and that was fucking horrible too.  I went for 96 hours, but had forgotten my moisturizer.  By the time I returned my face was falling off.  I am not kidding.  The windtraps of the long New York streets had flaked my skin into dry strips.  For five days after I came back I couldn’t break a smile, lest my cheeks would fall out.   The force of the wind had been so strong that for two days we could not walk. It was what I imagine the Arctic Circle would be like.  In winter.    You could only speak if you were walking uptown; if you were walking downtown the icy wind would blow your face into a fleshy balloon and your eyes would water until they hurt.  I thought “Bugger this for a game of tiddlywinks, I’m going back to West Hampstead.”  And that’s exactly what I did.  The truth is, although London closes at early at night, New York shuts down for the whole of frigging January.   Greenwich Village was a ghost town.  Have a nice day.

And if the East Village, is a “bit like Islington with Camden Market in the middle of it”, then why don’t we just go back to London? Why would anyone on earth travel 3471 miles to get to Camden?  I know it can feel like that on the Northern Line sometimes but it is actually much, much closer.  If you look for the shortcomings, then, there are many.  New York taxi drivers don’t know where they are going.  New York has no National Theatre.  Their buses aren’t smart and red like ours are.  New Yorkers are never, ever laid back.  Manhattan is frequently grid locked (the centre of London actually hardly ever is)  Their Sunday newspapers are a bitter disappointment after ours; the general quality of broadsheet newspaper journalism cannot touch the UK’s. Buying a book in New York will cost you twice as much as buying one in London.  There’s never much to watch on TV.  On my return from my New York State of Mind, I never again complained about London rain.  It amused me – look how gentle it is! Observe the lack of brain-crushing, 112 mile an hour winds! Drizzle!  Drizzle!  How pleasant.  London is temperate.  New York is on the edge of some kind of Atlantic wind chill / heatwave / seaboard / mad zone.   London is of brick and dust; New York is a thing of steel and compounds, metal and perfunctory grids.  In London you walk where the Romans walked.  I now think our hip zones are decidedly hipper than their New York counterparts.  Visitors say their is a heaviness to London; it’s the worst characteristic, as the deep clouds and lack of light pulls you down on dark days, but it is still composed of gentler stuff, and our evolution into our cityscape has been an entirely organic one.  In New York you have a man made grid city of glass, emerging brilliantly from the tiniest slither of island.  Of course it’s magical.  It’s brilliant.  It’s a wonderful city, and there’s no place like it.  But there’s another place there’s nowhere like, 3,471 miles away from it – home.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Does Andrew Lloyd Webber Steal Shoes?

Not an ordinary question to be asked whilst standing at the bus stop, but it had been one of those evenings.   My friend and I were standing at St John’s Wood after a boisterous kofte.

“No,” I said.  “What? Of course he doesn’t.”

“You said he’d nicked something from Ravel.”

“Yes.”

“Well, then.”

There is no Number 13 on the horizon.  “No, not Ravel the shop.  Ravel the dead composer.”

“So, he’s dead.”

“Yes.”

My friend shrugged.

“It’s a different thing,” I said, disappointed that I was having to describe the difference between footwear and musical composition on a rainy street corner in North West 8.  “You can take someone’s shoes when they’re dead; but there are rules about dead music.”

She didn’t get it and held both her palms out, as if to say: “Music?  Shoes?  What difference?  Where’s the bus?”

“You can’t steal dead composers’ works.  There are currently no laws in place about what happens to your shoe collection when you die; which is a gross oversight, in my view.”

The fact is that Andrew Lloyd Webber, whilst no doubt being a splendid person, is know to have “borrowed”, shall we say, from the archives of classical music for some of his musicals.  Ravel (the man, not the shop) and his  Bolero (the piece of music, not the item of clothing) is forever linked to Cats (the musical, not the animals).   Once on the bus, and shaking drizzled droplets out of our hair, my friend became utterly confused and thought I was talking about cats in shoes going cape shopping.  But the sentiment was right.   Not that I dislike MiLord Webber, of course.  I did once work for him and very nice he was too – always knocking on the dressing room doors rather than just barging in like the producer used to in the hope that we would all be in a state of general disarray and undress.   But MiLord Lloyd Webber did compose a new song for this show and for two weeks I tried to work out where I had heard this “new tune” before.  Halfway through a Thursday matinee it hit me – most of it was the same as the theme tune from The Upper Hand, that sitcom where Joe McGann played a housekeeper.

It must have been galling for Love Never Dies to receive it’s mauling from the Press, as The Phantom of The Opera / Melodrama / Electro-pop/Classical-type / Musical is resilient to all attacks.  It ceases to matter that it’s a bit shit.  It ceases to mean anything that it’s overblown tripe.  It ceases to matter that it’s got more ham than a village butcher.  Still they file in – tourists from the four corners of the globe, school trips, middle-aged couples – and watch the chandelier nearly but not actually fall on them, accompanied by a dubious soundtrack of electric organ and classical oboe.  “Listen to the music of the NNIIIIIGGGHHHHHHT!……………….”  Mucus of the night, more like.  Still, I shouldn’t be mean.  MiLord Lloyd Webber has snapped up several West End theatres and fills them with a hearty variety of shows for your pleasure and perusal.   He doesn’t actually have many of his own composed shows in the West End these days and has seamlessly slipped into Producer mode and casting director for Saturday night TV.

Whilst Phantom and the purely saccharine and downright silly Les Miserables / a.k.a. The Glums marches on to revolution without showing any signs of stoppage, good shows are going to the wall.  Betty Blue Eyes – great reviews, a pleasant audience reception but not enough tickets sold – closed last week.  Tourists must still be coming to London – The Glums and The Farter of the Opera, Wicked and Mamma Mia must be taking the lion’s share.  But for the newer musicals trying to elbow their way in to this market is a brutal and murky business.  In three weeks, Crazy For You takes up the transfer that it was always somehow due to have since it opened at Regents’ Park in early August.  The week I saw it, cast members told me that the first weeks’ performances had been littered with producers, to whom a West End transfer for a classic Gershwin musical was essentially considered a no-brainer.  Tap dancing, a classic score, a traditional musical comedy structure (girl meets boy, love arrives, love is challenged, some dancing, some more dancing, adversity is met and bashed over the head, some tap dancing, true love, a happy ending.  Oh, and a comedic turn from a series of small, eccentric cameo roles), the classic “feel good” musical – all these components when shaken together and baked in the middle shelf of a pre-heated oven for an hour and a half produce the Perfect American Musical of the Golden Age.  But – will it survive?

Crazy For You is a new show, based on a new-ish show that was based on an old show.  Girl Crazy was the original Gershwin show from 1930, which was shaken up and edited by Ken Ludwig in the late 1980s to produce Crazy For You in 1991.  It opened on Broadway, in London at the Prince Edward Theatre, won every award going, made a star of Ruthie Henshall and ran for a couple of years.  Its home in 1993 was The Prince Edward Theatre, a glamorous, glorious feast of Art Deco madness at the salubrious end of Old Compton Street, where Crazy For You fitted ideally into its home, which was basically a building as old as the show inside it.  The Novello, where Betty Blue Eyes has snorted her last, is at the end of the Strand where they forgot to put any kind of atmosphere and which edges, soberly, onto the Aldwych end of Holborn.  Theatreland it isn’t.  Geography is historically vital to how and where theatre productions eek out their survival, but perhaps this won’t be a factor in the case for Crazy For You.  I shouldn’t need to tell any of you about Crazy For You’s  ridiculous musical virtues as a show and if I do – well, then – you’re reading the wrong blog.

Ironically, a show that kicks the recession blues neatly into touch with it’s joie de vivre and optimism may well end up being a victim of exactly the kind of economic gloom that is annihilated whilst watching Crazy For You.  You simply get momentarily swept up in its fabulousness.  It is impossible to see Crazy For You  and not feel better about things, or think that some great cosmic world order has satisfactorily been restored as you leave the theatre.  Like all great classics of the American comedy musical stage, it is a show within a show; and the idea of a theatre being repossessed is challenged by a “Let’s put the show on right here!” fortitude that would suit Mickey Rooney.    The lead character, Bobby, is a man to whom nothing matters other than dancing, which he often illustrates throughout the show.  Rather than dancing and singing suddenly coming at you right between the eyes during an otherwise ordinary narrative, and therefore feeling a bit anachronistic and out of place, in the traditional American musical plot very often mirrors subject content.   And, frankly, what could be more topical than a theatre on which “foreclosure” is imminent?  (“Foreclosure”!  what a euphemism.  How American.  So much more smoke-and-mirrors than our own take-no-prisoners, gruff word: “repossession”…).  The score of Crazy For You is nothing short of remarkable.

This Open Air Theatre production deserves to survive with rampant success.  The thought of actors and actresses killing themselves with this show eight times a week to houses filled only to two-thirds capacity is a depressing one. Crazy For You is an ideal antidote to the risks and petulance and toughness of our current climate.  After all, aren’t the recent riots summed up by : “When I’m dancing I don’t care if this old world stops turning, Or if my bank is burning, Or even if Romania wants to fight Albania.…”?  and some much-needed context for the current financial lunacy provided by this? : “My bonds and shares may fall downstairs –  Who cares, who cares? I’m dancing and I can’t be bothered now!”   I hope this peach of a show gets the long and illustrious West End run it deserves, as their as far too few tap dances in the West End right now.  Perhaps it will survive for a year against the odds; so long as Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t steal any more shoes.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Italy / England or Italia / Inghilterra?

Pardon me, but I’m culturally confused.  On Sunday I wound up at the final day of the South Bank’s glittering homage to all things Festival of Britain – the Museum of ’51.  The Museum of ’51 is a tribute to the paraphenalia, exhibits, souvenirs and sense of the 1951 Festival of Britain, for which most of our monstrous South Bank was constructed and which was a centennial nod to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The 1951 exhibition ran all summer at the South Bank, where it dovetailed nicely into the three day Vintage Fest at the back end of July and also explained the cuter-than-cute artist-designed beach huts by the Thames, surrounded by some lovely sand for the Urban Beach.  As if we needed any further reminder after the slashing winds and frightening rain of the last week – our summer is most certainly over. Yesterday they took London’s little Urban Beach sand away.  Boohoo.

The Museum of ’51 is a bit of a misnomer to be mentioned here, as by the time you read this, the exhibition will have closed.  All the red, pale, grey and blue badges, epaulettes and fetching ladies’ headscarves will be packed up into the box marked Post-War Fashion Errors and shelved away for another 50 years.  They will be forgotten, and only brought out again at moments of feverish nationalist fervour.  The Museum of ’51 ended up not being a museum about Britain or its Festival, but it was about the British.  The pedestrian nature of what were the most exciting elements of the Festival of Britain in 1951 have become the most touching today : the “cafeteria” beside an imitation lake, serving a range of hearty, English fayre was probably the most exciting destination of all after seven years of rationing.  The various “world zones” and “outer space” sections look like NASA let loose in the Blue Peter props department.  Britain in 1951, let me remind my dearest readers, was solidly poor.  The Festival was a morale -booster, an eye-opener, and something to look forward to.   Children were taken on school outings to view it.  Many young adults thought it slightly naff (particularly the lunar-esque structure which imitated a spaceship named The Dome) but took advantage of its eating and drinking venues despite this.

The exhibition I saw on Sunday was a riot of themed ashtrays, architectural designs, valuable video footage of excited children and early 1950s memorabilia.  It was particularly touching to view the comments board, where visitors were encouraged to share their memories of the original exhibits, and their feelings on returning to the South Bank and seeing the displays today.  But the Festival of Britain was designed to be of the moment, and yet future-looking.   It cleared ravaged slums to build what we now know of The South Bank (only The Royal Festival Hall remains).  The architectural design was intended to meet expectations of what new urban towns of the 1950s would look like.  But the 1950s has rapidly shifted into near-hysterical vintage in the cultural British mindset.  It is hard to think of a more historically ploughed decade for vintage dresses, furniture and cocktail cabinets than the 1950s.  An exhibition that was about positivity and the age of The New Elizabethans becomes a retro-chic event, not about the future but about the hopes and aspirations of the past.

Was I confused?  Yes.  But I did enjoy the vintage ashtrays.  And as for the 1950s living room, well, I would have moved in immediately.  But they would have stopped me, obviously, as it’s not allowed.  The modernist living room of the 1950s is my dream home of the future.   Of course, I had just come from an arresting and surreal exhibition of Tate Modern, so that’s why my view of 1951 London was so unreal.    The 1960s had it’s massive cultural movement – I think – in terms of renaissance  – in the 1990s in Britain.  There was a rash of Mod-ery, a plethora of guitar-heavy bands from the Northwest, and a slightly nauseating Rule Britannia nonsense that took the Union Jack flag, sewed it onto the seat of a pair of jeans, and slapped that pair of jeans on to a Gallagher’s behind.   But the 1950s is most certainly having its moment.  Personally I blame Mad Men.  The more observational amongst you will realise that I actually never left the 1950s in the first place.

The 1950s was also the decade (at the end of the decade) when the English discovered Italy and went sort of nuts for it.  All right, then, 1960 was La Dolce Vita but you get my drift.  All those cappucinos! coo!  All those Roman streets with ladies on motorcycles behind passionate looking, short, Italian men!  How exciting must that have been to the British?  The interesting thing is that whilst gender politics and social advancements in Britain have progressed with much aplomb, in Italy it is still acceptable for a man to drive around the street, park up, slap ladies bottoms, get back in the car and go home for dinner with Mummy.  In that ways, perhaps, the gender politics of the post-war era are still astonishingly intact.  So, that’s where you go for your genuine 1950s cultural experience.   This season has brought the return of who I think of as the Coolest Man on the Telly, Francesco da Mosto, to BBC4.  For those of you not familiar with Sig. da Mosto, he is a Venetian nobleman who can trace his family in Venice back to 600AD and who is also a hip architect who drives around Italy in his red Alfa Romeo Spider looking like you would expect The Coolest Man on the Telly to look.  His manner is the only thing cooler than his swathe of collar-length wavy grey hair.  “Eeetaliii”, he says, as he drives his car through windy, mountainous roads.  “EEE-tal-ieee”, he says, illegally parking in a medieval campo in Umbria, where his shrugging-shoulder charm gets the better of the traffic police.  “EEE-tal-ieee” he remonstrates – again “is what you Bree-tish warrrnnnnnt.  You want to mooooove ‘ere.  You want to become expirt on wine and eat goot food.  You Bree-tish warnt zis!”  In his series Italy Top To Toe fabulous Francesco points out that it is the Roman / Florentine EEtaliiieee that the British are enamoured with.  Sicily is too spicy.  Naples too southern, and dirty.  But Florence?  Umbria?  Rome?  Very New Labour friendly.  I ask you : can you move in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence in the height of spring?  No.  Why?  Because some over-bearing, brutally intense middle class parent is shouting “Timothy!  Don’t be long for gelato!  We have to view the Uffizi before your pottery lesson!”  whilst hordes of middle-aged men in Marks and Spencers boat shoes try to remember the Italian for psoraisis in the local farmacia.

Francesco da Mosto’s programme on Florence ended up with him heroically attempting a game of football on the banks of the Arno, stopping only to cough up last night’s cigarettes, and wearing a very short, camp and somewhat unflattering pair of shorts with the brio that only an Italian aristocrat can.  Usually once a programme, Francesco’s youthful, pretty children and glamorous wife appear.  He jumps out of his sports car and they ruffle his grey hair lovingly.  Then he gets back in to the car again to show us some more Roman fabulousness.   His programmes are a delight; mainly because they sell us not just Italy but the kind of Italian life a thirteenth generation Venetian nobleman has.  It doesn’t make you want to move to Italy.  It makes you want to have Francesco da Mosto’s life; which seems to involve a laidback enjoyment of all things edible and drinkable, a complete lack of pretension and a habit of standing in the vineyards of other Italian noblemen, gaily picking grapes in their Chianti vineyards and waving to them up in the castle windows.  In short, nothing could be further from England.  You can’t imagine Francesco da Mosto driving up the M1 and then announcing lovingly :  “Nottinghammm…” or “Ashton under Lyme is one of the murrst beoootiful places in Engerland…”  can you?   Perhaps, no matter how lovingly we admired Roman and Tuscan elegant nonchalance, we are doomed to be a nation forever in naff headscarves looking either to the future or the south for design inspiration?  God only knows what the Italians must think when they visit England.  One thing is for sure – one thing we in England have that the Italians do not : we have the hope of better design inspiration, whereas I would imagine the whole world looks ugly if you’ve been brought up in Venice.  Looking south, the view is lovelier from here.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday (Ermm…. tutti i giovedi.  Grazie).

Bluebird Book Club

I adore bookshops.  I actually like them more than I like the books I often purchase from them.  I liked one particular bookshop so much I married the manager, but therein lies another tale.  In this summer of chilly discontent, many people aren’t going on holiday.  This is a great shame, and this year – like 2009 – is the year when the mercury has failed spectacularly to go anywhere above freezing and when nothing could be nicer than a fortnight in the Algarve.  But, frankly, I don’t know anyone who is going abroad for a holiday this summer.  Britain is tightening her pretty little purses and, frankly, it has never been so easy to get an excellent restaurant table in London in mid-week.

Just because we are not going on holiday doesn’t mean we can forsake our holiday reading, however, and for me a bank holiday is not a bank holiday without a rollicking good read.  So, welcome to the Bluebird Book Club – we serve coffee as good as Rome’s Cafe Greco, we serve home made apple tart, and we bitch about writers by cosy lamplight whilst investigating a diverse series of authors.   Also – unlike ordinary book clubs – I suggest the circumstances in which you should read these books – and when you most certainly should not. Draw your chairs up, kids.   Pencils to the ready..

 

Over the last two weeks though I have gone schizo.  Or eclectic.  Or nuts.  Either way, my choices have been broad.  The first book was Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started Early, Took my Dog.  Those of you who salivated over Jason Isaacs in Case Histories on the BBC earlier this year will rediscover his literary incarnation, Jackson Brodie, here.  This is a police thriller set in two timelines – one the pre-Yorkshire Ripper Yorkshire of the mid 1970s and the other in the present day.  Brodie is one of three main characters which are neatly dovetailed into Atkinson’s narrative.  The other two principal characters are an ageing stage actress losing her marbles (Atkinson is bitterly accurate on the interior monologue that goes on in the head of an ageing luvvie) and a lonely, chubby security officer called Tracy, who is retiring.  One day Tracy does something which changes everything.  Of course I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Jackson Brodie is a fascinating rootless sort of character, driving around the county of his youth (Yorkshire) bemoaning the loss of its industrial backbone and becoming increasingly enchanted by the county’s medieval relics.  The author recaps on Jackson’s somewhat diffident love history for those of us new to Brodie (like me) so we don’t feel entirely all at sea.  Despite the book weighing in at 420-ish pages, it is a deceptively quick read, with Atkinson’s dark and laugh-out-loud humour keeping the prose and narrative taut throughout.  The only negative point Iwould make is that this is easily 50 pages or so too long, but these 50 will fly by. 

TO BE READ : on a summer’s day when the rain is unpleasantly battering on the window and you are in the mood for a fast-paced thriller.  In bed.   If you love dogs.  If you enjoyed Life on Mars.    Accompanied by : strong cup of coffee and a hob nob, a no-nonsense biscuit as grainy and rough as the Yorkshire Moors themselves.

NOT TO BE READ:  If you are in the Yorkshire Moors at night.  If you are in the West Yorkshire police force or have ever been in the West Yorkshire police force.  If you are a prostitute.  If you find blood and gore hard to take.

A good ghost story should creep silently under your skin.  It is a short step from “Reading a terribly good ghost story” to shivering and wailing alone in the night, terrified and unable to sleep.    This is from the same writer who gave us The Woman in Black which is still running in the West End startling people nightly, after 23 years.  And The Woman in Black is scary.  I used to know someone whose job it was to go around the theatre after every performance and check the arm rests were still attached to the seats, as people would rip them away in shock during the final scene.   The Small Hand is a quick book – you can read it in a couple of hours.  The prose is sparse, the story is traditional.  It features an antiquarian bookseller who has an odd experience in an isolated rural garden and starts to send cold chills down the back of the neck forthwith.  There are terrible, wind-thrashed country drives down remote Spanish hillsides, freaky old ladies (nothing is more frightening) and – of course – some sinister monks thrown in for good measure.  Hill is a master of pace.  She knows how to unnerve and delivers the scenes in a calm, pragmatic tone that belies the eerie content.  Strangely, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying, despite the various loose ends being competently wound into place.  But the thrill of a ghost story is still rendered intact.

TO BE READ: on a bright day when you are feeling full of fortitude and gumption.  In a built up area.  If you are one of those people who like a bit of a scare.  Accompanied by: chocolate – soothes feelings of ghostly anxiety, with a hipster flask of brandy nearby from which you can take steadying nips throughout. 

NOT TO BE READ:  At night, on your own, in the countryside, or if you have a fear of water.

The History of Love  is an extraordinary book – but, again I am behind the times here, as I believe it was nominated for an Orange Prize in 2006. To tell you the truth, I am still 70 pages from the end, and fully expect the complex plot to wrap rings around my frontal lobe, but it reminded me – a bit – of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife in which alternative realities exist in the different spaces for the same character.  It is rather self-referential  – but it is written incredibly deftly and is the only book I think I have ever read that made me cry with laughter and then, one paragraph further, reduced me to a weeping, soggy mess on the carpet.  The History of Love is about a book – rare and only ever published once in Chile in a small pressing – called The History of Love.  Much comment is made regarding this book’s somewhat traumatic beginnings, its authorship and in particular its principal character, Alma, quite clearly the love of the novelist’s life.  But who is the novelist?  This novel spans Israel, South America, Spain, New York and England and never quite rests at all.  A stunningly beautiful read – the ending of which I simply cannot guess.  The principal character is called Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish Jew now living in America who is terrified that no one will notice when he dies.  He tries to be disruptive in public places and create commotions to ensure remembrance.  Then there is a young girl desperately trying to counteract her mother’s life of loneliness and trying not to worry that she has a brother called Bird who has convinced himself he is the messiah.  It’s about lost words as much as it is about lost people and lost hearts.  I cannot wait to read the next Krauss novel Great House, having read this one.  It’s truly extraordinary, although the structure may frustrate some people. 

TO BE READ: If you like books about the nature of books, if you are interested in Jewish migration, think old people are highly amusing, if you are a frustrated author and if you believe in true love.  To be accompanied by: a good cup of tea.  No food necessary.  You’ll have to concentrate enough on the plot, never mind a sandwich.

NOT TO BE READ: If you are frustrated ever by a novel’s lack of action, if you are a misogynist or if you really don’t like the name ALMA.

This is a re-read.  This spanking new edition, complete with a foreword by actor Alan Cumming, has heralded a mini-Mitford revival.  In its wake another of Mitford’s novels, Wigs On the Green (a satire of British fascism of the 1930s and one that made Nancy fall out with her sister Diana and brother in law Oswald Mosley, who Nancy had clearly lampooned) has been republished for the first time since 1935.  Too sensitive for re-issue in the years after World War II?  Or just not as brilliant or dazzling as Mitford’s others?  I’ll let you know when I’ve read it.  It’s next on my list.  This book, Love In A Cold Climate, has never been out of print, and is one of Mitford’s most wonderful and enduring novels, along with Pursuit of Love.  Mitford’s world is eccentric, often sexually amoral, slightly nutty and concerns itself with minor aristocratic affairs of the heart.  Although written just after the war, her two best known novels are set in the 1920s and 1930s, in an unmistakably inter-war milieu. She is a master of humourous writing and shares Waugh’s talent for wonderfully funny speech.  Please, please read Pursuit of Love first, if you plan to read this.  Love in a Cold Climate is set at the same time and features some of the same people.  It tells the story of Polly Hampton, and her rather intimidating parents, Lord & Lady Montdore, through the eyes of Fanny, a young debutante and the daughter of a rarely seen woman called “The Bolter”.  Fanny’s anxiety about the upper-class world of the Hamptons and their parties suddenly disappears when kind, quite, beautiful, perfect Polly falls in love, with her own uncle.   Courageously, Mitford produces one of the most openly gay characters I can think of in mid-twentieth century literature.   The Montdores have no son; and are concerned that the inheritor of their incredible possessions is destined to be a stranger from Nova Scotia.  When Cedric Hampton arrives, in blue sunglasses, and proceeds to give the elderly Lady Montdore a stunning, gay makeover, it’s enough to make any reader guffaw with joyous laughter.  No one seems to mind that he is rather “mauve” and all the women instantly go shopping with him.  Like Wodehouse, Mitford is divorced from much of the world’s poverty.  But, even if you decide you’re not in the mood to read her, after five minutes of this book, you’ll find that you are.  If this book was a foodstuff it would be one of those boxes of miniature Green & Black’s chocolates : rich, biting, sweetly luxurious – and you feel immediately better afterwards.  And for those of you keen to write off Ms Mitford with a gesture of shallowness, she was an ardent Francophile who also churned out historical biographies of high profile French peeps, as well as translating works of literature from her home in France.  So there.

TO BE READ : When you wish to take cover from a brutal and uncaring world.  In the bath.  At cocktail hour.  At a country house weekend.  When you want to be a tourist to the upper classes for a day.  To be accompanied by:  A morning Bloody Mary before Giles takes the dogs out on the hunt.  A stiff pre-dinner G&T.  A slice of tarte tatin in tribute to Ms Mitford’s French escapades.

NOT TO BE READ: If you are a Marxist, if you dislike hearing about parties and dresses, if you dislike eccentrics or if you are Oswald Mosley (which you probably aren’t.)

Please return to The London Bluebird if you have enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.