The Passenger


So the Wendy Dawn Thompson Fan Club (Blackheath Chapter) were out in force last night, Me and A, M and D (separately, we thought they were going a different night and bumped into them in the bar).  I have to admit I would not have gone to The Passenger if WDT (Vlasta) hadn’t been in it, and she must have had at least 10 lines!

I suppose my enjoyment of Opera is in its extremes of silliness even when being tragic, it needs to be over the top; I like to have a good wallow, and this wasn’t wallowing material.

I was reminded of my Dad saying that what makes a good musical is the book, no doubt quoting someone, but I forget who; and the problem with this opera is that the story isn’t quite strong enough to carry an opera, and the way the opera is constructed weakens it further.

We start on an ocean liner headed for Brazil.  Everything and everyone is white, cold, functional, emotionally distant:  Leise (Michelle Breedt), particularly, is distant with her husband Walter (Kim Begley), off on a posting as German ambassador to Brazil.  Her repetitive Yes, darling, telegraphing her discomfort.  And there’s the problem already, only a few minutes in.  She’s already in a state, before she sees the mysterious passenger.  So any dramatic punch, any disintegration of their relationship as a result of her uncovered deceit, is undermined.  I was deeply unhappy with the dumb-crambo (It can’t be credited as mime) when there were no words for Breedt to sing but the music continued – waving arms and opening and shutting the mouth ain’t acting, and there was some very odd slo-mo walking at times.)  And the ship-board stuff goes on and on, and goes nowhere and adds nothing.  A bold director would have taken the scissors to this – we could have lost all but about 15 minutes without any detriment to the plot or the music.

There is so little light that the shade is just grey mist, it can’t be dark because there’s no contrast, no relief.  Several reviews have made much of the setting of the back story in Auschwitz, some thinking it’s not an appropriate topic for an opera.  I’m reserving judgement on that; but in this instance, it didn’t work.

The set is magnificent, clever, almost witty  (I loved the snick the self-propelling hand rail on the ship makes as it connects.) – but it ovewhelms the action, I was distracted (though enchanted) by the engineering.

The score is eloquent, and played with conviction, although it is a bit heard-it-before hand-me-down Britten-Gershwin-late 50’s dissonance.  (Full marks however for the ‘migraine’ music of  xylophonesque clanging – that is exactly what a migraine is like.)  The male chorus perched above the action like dispassionate observers do stirling work musically, but have some seriously trite commentary (a translation issue??).

I found the mixture of speech and song annoying, the music behind a lot of the conversation largely redundant, adding nothing to the emotional colour or our understanding of the characters, and I detest ‘musical speaking’ (there’s probably a word for it) ponderous, well-rounded, exquisitely projected, but utterly false. Give me Handel recitative any day!

A recounted a story she heard on the radio – one of Churchill’s daughter’s telling of her father weeping over the death of friend in the presence of Stalin, and Stalin saying, (roughly) yes, it’s personal when it is one and known, against the statistics of thousands unknown.

The enormity of the holocaust requires a conduit, a someone we can relate to, and in The Passenger, this is Marta (Giselle Allen), the Polish prisoner Leise is desperate to break.  But we don’t get to know Marta until the second half.  Until then the prisoners are the thousands unknown.  The only moment of connection in the first half is a woman naming her dead children, keeping them alive by speaking their names.

I found it enormously frustrating, I wanted to like this work, I wanted to engage with the characters, and I couldn’t.  I think I was not alone, the queue in the ladies in the interval was silent and gloomy … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before!

The second half perked up a bit, (I know that’s the wrong word, but it’s how it felt – at last!) as we finally got some kind of plot line, and a modicum of tension.  The relationships between Marta and her small group of friends are sketched in just enough, and are the highlight of the production.  We are introduced to Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose), her fiance and the tool Liese uses to torment Marta. Breedt really goes for it in this section, and Allen and Melrose give as good as they get.

The evening never lifted itself beyond the barely two-dimensional, everyone was trying very hard, but the source material and the direction just wasn’t strong enough.

Disappointing.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Essex extremes


Rainham Marsh copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I do like a mix and match day.  So we started with a couple of kilometres of walking round Rainham Marshes bird reserve.  Not many birds to see, but there’s not much to beat a marsh in the sun; a beautiful morning, a stolen September summer Sunday, wandering about in shirtsleeves with the end of the month in sight.

Rainham Marsh was in danger of being developed for years before the RSPB finally secured it, and they are being very conscious of stepping lightly now they’ve got it – the visitor centre makes use of natural light, ground heating, harvested rainwater… the tradition of grazing is kept up with a mixed herd of beef cattle relaxing in the scrubby grass, and dragonflies flitting hither and yon.  The walkways keep you above the reeds so there is some hope of seeing something – I have been places where all you can see are head high reeds – no doubt wonderful for the birds, but

Rainham Kingfisher copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I’d want at least a bittern under those circumstances!

I don’t mind the lack of birds when I can see the scenery, and they provide you with the odd sculpture to make up for it, and there are old military posts and firing ranges to distract from the lack of rustling and chirping.

Apparently the kestrels use the giant wooden numbers on the range as hunting posts, but not today.

We walked back along the river path, trying to work out where we were on the southern bank last week, but I think we were a lot nearer the mouth of the river than last week, although we could identify Shooters Hill in the distance.

Rainham range copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We got rather lost trying to find our next stop, the Royal Opera House Production Centre, where they were having a sale of costumes.  It could hardly be more different, although the building is again ecologically minded with a Sedum roof.

ROH Rococo copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We have a great time window shopping, trying on full length white Astrakhan coats, eighteenth century frock coats and monstrous cloaks.

There were queues from four in the morning yesterday, but it is quieter today with a very comfortable, good-humoured crowd, much laughter and enthusiasm, complete strangers taking pictures of each other and offering opinions on the fit of the Cinderella dress or the Hussar’s uniform.

There is something for everyone, and then some:

Transformations worthy of Cinderella copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Rococo, Barbarian or Grand Guignol, people were pulling dresses and armour on over their jeans with a fine disregard for modesty.  And some of the transformations are worthy of Cinderella.

Sadly, nothing fits me – that’s the problem with costumes, they have all been made to measure for particular people, and it wasn’t me!

The quality of the costumes was astonishing, I had expected it to be a bit gimcrack and just good enough to be seen from the gallery, but the stitching was mostly exquisite and not too worn and sweaty either.

Exquisite stitching copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I was surprised at how heavy most of the costumes were, I can’t imagine how they stand it singing under lights in such thick heavy (but gorgeous) clothes.

If I could have found something that fitted I would almost certainly have bought it, regardless of whether I would ever wear it, just for the pleasure of looking and touching.

ROH Grand Guignol copyright Cherry Potts 2011
ROH Barbarians copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Folkestone Triennial: Art-on-Sea


A and I are a bit last-minute with exhibitions and regularly miss things because we think we’ll go ‘later’ and then just forget.  However, we actually made it to the Folkestone Triennial with two days to spare.  We followed the yellow seagulls sprayed on the pavement from the station to the visitor centre. There was a lot to see, and we resigned ourselves to not managing it all. I particularly wanted to see the Martello tower installation Towards the Sound of Wilderness by Cristina Iglesias, but it was a long way out of town and we just hadn’t got sufficient energy.  So putting that to one side, high spots were:

The Folk Stones copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Folk Stones, (Mark Wallinger) a square of 19,240 pebbles set in concrete, each one numbered, and the total number is the number of British soldiers killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme: they set out for France from Folkestone.  This is a permanent installation.

While we were there a young man was laboriously cleaning each pebble.

Out of Tune (A K Dolven) The sixteenth century church bell suspended on the beach which may only be rung every two minutes as it drives the neighbours to distraction, and can be heard tolling at…

nature taking over copyright Cherry Potts 2011

… the former harbour station, where the first world war troops moved from train to ship.  A bleak spot where nature is taking over – the perfect post-apocalyptic film set, all rusting girders, rotting wood and sprouting chamomile.  The art here is a rather odd 5 headed sculpture on a rug on the tracks; Rug People (Paloma Varga Weisz)  has a built-in anxiety – are these refugees arriving, or exiles leaving?  Either way, the train done gone; and it is the station which excites.

a perfect post apocalypse film set copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We were not alone – a girl child flitted amongst the metal columns and a man poked around the dishevelled rails, (“Isn’t this awesome?” he asked in delight) but there were not enough people to make anyone think they could possibly expect a train.

They were like ghosts, glimpsed from the corner of your eye.

scenes of devastation copyright Cherry Potts 2011
The Navy in the Nave copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The Navy in the Nave – a fleet of model boats floating suspended for the ceiling of the ancient church of St Mary and St Eanswythe.

A and I argued over the pronunciation, and then forgot about it as we gazed at the extraordinary collection of vessels sailing from nowhere to nowhere, seemingly jostling for space.

'For those in Peril on the Sea' copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The piece is called For Those in Peril on the Sea, (Hew Locke) and it is  as though we are looking up from the sea bed at a drowned armada, gradually settling down to join us.  It feels like something Terry Gilliam would dream up.  Oddly moving.

Folkestone in September is not wildly populated and there are a lot of dilapidated properties and empty shops.  It has only one small sandy beach, the rest are stony and a bit bleak, the harbour is attractive and there are plenty of fish shops, (more A’s thing than mine!).  We were lucky with the weather and it was a delight to walk along the seafront with warmth and late summer sun.

I’m glad Folkestone has the Triennial, because I wouldn’t have come otherwise and  it is important to visit our seaside towns, and celebrate them.

At particular points about the town there are plaques with locals’ comments on what you can see. Everywhere Means Something to Someone (Strange Cargo).  Just so.

I will probably be following the yellow seagulls again in three years’ time.

...like something dreamed up by Terry Gilliam ... copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

sleeping with more cats


The continuing saga of the cats who have owned me. Earlier episode here

Hattie under the vine copyright Cherry Potts 2011

One of the things about Hattie, (we rarely called her Harriet) was that she had a ritual of staring out of the window every morning, which we attributed to her ‘checking outside was still there’.

It turned out we were right.  When we moved house the first thing she did in the morning was look out of the window, and she screamed, and ran to the other window and screamed again.  Completely unconcerned at being in a new house, she was horrified that Outside had Changed!  It took several days before she recovered.

The demise of Zappa and the move to neutral territory did something to improve relations between Hattie and Morph  but they never became friends.  Morph, despite his laid back adoration of his humans rather despised Hattie’s despot tendencies and she knew herself to be queen empress and thought him beneath contempt.  It wasn’t a peaceful home, we had the bottom half of a house, with massive basement, on the corner of a very busy road.  I feared for the cats, but they had no interest in going near the traffic, and the back garden at least had a high wall (until a drunk drove into it).  We had to make the garden from scratch and Hattie would come and help. Morph would sit on a windowsill and gaze at us in horror.  Hattie disappeared several times while we lived there – she was adventurous and was gone for three days in heavy snow, and two one summer – that time she came home with no voice and a wound to her neck and throat – a very close call that kept her home for a long time.  Hattie adored visitors, and was especially fond of our friend C who would move in while we were on holiday, and once spent Christmas with us – Hattie was surprised and delighted to wake Christmas morning and find us and C there, and I heard her holding a lengthy conversation with C on the way to her breakfast, using a vocabulary of chirrups and murrips she never used to us – I can’t help wondering what she had on her mind.

Morph in a basket copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We were broken into on roughly a six monthly basis in this place, which did nothing for Morph’s nerves, and he used to literally climb walls, wailing at what he imagined were doors (weirdly, we had been round the property before it was converted and there had been doors where he did this) – we called this ‘importuning arbours’ from a quotation used by (I think) Ruth Rendell in a Wexford book, when he or Burden mutters

such closets to ransack such arbours to importune.

Never tracked down where it’s from but I’m guessing a Jacobean revenger tragedy by Myddleton or someone.

Morph’s nerves caused him to hide a lot and he spent part of every day under the covers in my bed, lying as flat as he could…  he got sat on regularly. As he was double jointed he could get into the tiniest spaces, he once spent a week behind the built in fridge, eventually coming out for a peice of stilton – he loved smelly cheese.

Eventually we could stand the strain of living in this house, lovely though it was, no better than Morph, and owing to a death in the family inherited enough money for a deposit and moved swiftly to our beloved current home, a mid terrace 1920’s house in a quiet street with a middling sized garden backing onto a railway cutting.  The cats thought they had died and gone to heaven; Hattie regularly went peacefully to sleep in the middle of the lawn.  (I say lawn – patch of grass would be more accurate).

Hattie playing copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Harriet was a mighty hunter, and brought us in daily mice, birds and rats. In the first week we et her out she killed three enormous rats, too big to get through the catflap. We once saw her sitting apparently completely relaxed beneath the bird feeder, then as a sparrow landed, she leapt up vertically, smacked it and landed, with the bird dead of a broken neck at her feet.  Surgical strike by Harriet Jump Jet.  We gave her a round of applause, then moved the feeder higher.  She bounced up and down under it for a few days before admitting defeat.

Morph only ever caught one mouse, it was the smallest thing I ever saw – about the size of the first joint of my thumb.  We reckoned Morph must have been sleeping with his mouth open and the mouse ran in mistaking it for its hole… Morph was very proud of himself.

Not long after we moved, we were joined by a third cat and completed this particular dynasty.

Madge copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Madge (Her Majesty Magdalena Montmorency Mountjoy) was found up a tree during a rain storm in the garden next to where I was working.  The guy living there was up a ladder trying to persuade her down as I arrived for work.  I offered assistance and between us we got her to ground level, at which point she ran in hysterical circles shrieking, and running up and down the fire escape.  I managed to gather her up, and as she did not resist, took her into the office, dried her with paper towels, fed her milk and dropped her in my pending tray where she went to sleep.  By lunchtime the rain had stopped and I let her out to see if she remembered her way home.  She started the circling and screeching routine again, so I left her in charge of my desk and went home for some cat food.  She ate happily and went back to sleep, this time less conveniently in my in tray.  At the end of the day, I tried again to convince her to find her way home, without any joy.  So I plonked her in the back of the car, and drove home, with a friend’s story of their cat getting loose in the car and sitting on the driver’s head with paws over her eyes, at the forefront of my mind.  I needn’t have worried, Madge perched herself and peered inquisitively out the windows, and let me gather her up without any concern when we arrived home.

Madgeinabox copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Explaining to A that we had a visitor, I shut Madge in my room with food and a litter tray.  We weren’t planning on her staying, I was sure she had a home, close to the office and I just needed to put up notices.  We developed a theory that Madge had tripped up her old lady once too often, and left home in a huff when the staff stopped working for her.  At any rate she worked out how to turn the door handle and came out to introduce herself to Hattie and Morph.  Morph was thrilled, but Madge swore at him, and he never ever forgave her.  In the end, no one claimed her, and for a month or so, every visitor who came over the doorstep had her virtues paraded as we tried to find her a home.  we didnt think three cats and only two laps would work Then I noticed that this sunny animal was looking gloomier and gloomier and we decided we were being mean and should just adopt her.  Morph wasn’t pleased, and Harriet refused to acknowledge her existence.  We settled for an uneasy truce, with Madge very much knowing her place, and almost never getting  lap.  In fact on one occasion when she was having a cuddle, Morph came in, gave her a look and said ‘Keck‘, I don’t know what this means, but it clearly was not kind – Madge slunk away immediately and didn’t show her face for a couple of days.

By this time Morph was getting quite old, and was loosing it a bit. We would be sitting in the living room and these terrible tragic wailings would be coming from the hall (King Lear, we called it) if we went out and checked Morph would immediately stop and make cheerful noises.  Then one summer night we came back from dinner with a friend and went up the garden for some air with Morph toddling at our heels.  I looked down, and said there’s something not right with this cat. He was swollen up like a balloon.  we tossed a coin for who was going to risk their driving licence (we’d walked home, as we’d been drinking) and raced to the vet.  It turned out that he had a tumor which had started bleeding, and there was nothing to be done.

Harriet now ruled unopposed, and took up Morph’s wailing duties, and was just as cheerful if interrupted.  She really was magnificent, this tiny scrap of a cat, ruling the entire street.  No cat dared cross her path, they would cower away form even a look.  She even kept the local foxes in order: she was asleep on the garden seat one day when the ancient dog fox woke her up by sniffing at her, she leapt up swearing and boxed his ears.

Harriet didn’t last much longer than Morph, becoming increasingly fragile and her kidneys beginning to go; none the less, in her final hours, she chased a piece of cellophane around the hall, frightened a neighbouring cat into caniptions and received visitors graciously.  That cat had style.

Madge and Mouse copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Harriet’s death  left Madge an only cat, and she could hardly believe her luck.  She had always been a disgusting pig about food, taking vast bites and scraping what wouldn’t fit in her mouth off with her paws.  She stopped doing this and we realised she had been golloping her food because if she didn’t Hattie took it off her.  Not having to fight for her food she became quite ladylike.  It took a long time to convince her she was allowed to be cuddled and no one was going to say Keck ever again.

Sadly this late dawn was not to last.  Aged only thirteen (Hattie and Morph had both made it to eighteen) she was diagnosed with lymphoma and went down hill very rapidly.  I spent her final day hand feeding her kitten milk drop by drop off my fingers, which she thoroughly enjoyed, although every time I got up to go anywhere she tried to follow me.

So for the first time since I was eighteen I had no cat.  For three months I couldn’t bear the idea of another animal, but the house, although a great deal cleaner, felt very empty without a small furry body bundling up to the front door when I got home from work, so we soon started looking for a new feline family.  But that’s another story.

donate to the Cat’s Protection League

copyright Cherry Potts 2011

A Sense of Place


As a writer, reading is hedged about with difficulties – every book read takes time away from time writing (even when travelling, these days, although the book-to-read-on-the-train is still an honoured tradition), and there is the danger of absentmindedly siphoning off themes and even style, I am easily influenced by a good writer.  And, except when researching, I tend to find it hard work reading non-fiction.  So it is out of character for me to be reading what I have read over the summer.

Hancox, by Charlotte Moore is described as the story of a house and a family, and is based on the extraordinary archive of letters and diaries and other papers squirreled away by Moore’s family in the cupboards and attics of the house, Hancox.

I found myself actively jealous of the resources at Ms Moore’s disposal, during the Edwardian period in particular it would seem the family barely moved a muscle without recording it, and threw nothing away.  It makes A’s paternal ‘broody box’ look very half-hearted.

Moore tells of madness inherited, lovers thwarted, uncles estranged, aunts accommodated and aunts avoided; men who explored the arctic and women who never went further than the next village.  The complexity of family loyalties and betrayals over a wide-flung family tree are expertly examined, I never once got confused as to who she was writing about.  Inevitably almost no-one behaves well, and every selfish act and foible each unthinking slight and angry word is documented. Sibling rivalries and dependencies are exposed; the efforts to which the women have to go to eke out independence is breath-taking: the woman responsible for bringing Hancox into the family going to the lengths of letting it to a society for the relief of inebriates rather than share it with her needy sister and her overbearing husband, who completely failed to understand that she wanted to run  the farm herself.

And sitting toad-like on the south downs and in the middle of this narrative is the house itself: a house with a history written into its fabric, and stuffed into its drawers and cubbyholes.  It was the house, and the fact that it was on the downs, that drew me to the book and put it on my wish list, (fresh from the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Towner and enthused by his images of the down and farmhouses thereon); but a couple of months after reading it, it is the people I remember, that and the matter of fact way people thought nothing of getting the train to the (not very near)est station and then walking for several hours to visit family, then turn round and go back, the same day.

Complementary but contrasting is Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, which uses the creation of a garden (at Morville Dower House in Shropshire) as its centre piece, diving off into the history of the land the garden is growing in, the house that sits adjoining it, and the people who once lived there; and equally into Katherine’s own personal family history.  It’s hard to say what works best, she is marvellous on geology, medieval history and has an ability to step outside her relationships and be brutally and movingly honest about her parents.

The book is framed by the catholic medieval church hours, in that elastic time when the hour shortened as the year got dark, and lengthened again into the summer.  In some ways this is the difference between the two books, Moore takes a slice through a few years of the life of a house and family, stopping abruptly as she reaches people who are still alive, Swift delves as far back as she can go and is aware that she stands on the lip of the future, barely a mote in the blink of history.  Despite the potential for workaday in what should be a gardening book, The Morville Hours is a work of imagination, and Hancox emphatically is not, the wealth of evidence Moore has at her fingertips leaves little room for speculation.

Which leads me on to a book about London: An Acre of Barren Ground by Jeremy Gavron is described as a novel.  It isn’t, quite. It is a series of interlinking stories and slabs of research, taking Brick Lane in East London as its jumping off point.

As wide-ranging as The Morville Hours, it takes in Saxon history and the Victorian temperance movement, immigration from Eastern Europe and Bangladesh; comic books and medieval woodcuts; weavers and murderers, mudlarks and crooks.  It is so random and tangled I wondered occasionally if what was being presented as research was actually fiction.  It reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s London, the biography; but what I found endearing about it was how characters from one story popped up in another.  Hugh the purchaser of the original brickfields in a narrative poem Le bryk place wandering through the wreck of the priory (St Mary Spittal) sees an old woman… in the retelling of the medieval woodcuts, Snecockswell, we discover Hugh’s back story, and find out who the woman is.  (This is a fascinating piece of writing, describing each imagined picture in turn; it is only when the writing on the papers within the pictures is reported that we realise who everyone is.  Were it not for those few words it would be a perfect example of how to tell a story using only visual language.)  I’m tempted to use another subset of brackets but I will restrain myself and uses dashes instead – Gavron has an odd habit of not using speech marks, which makes me feel that the words are coming from a great distance, and are echoing, very disconcerting. –

East London Female Total Abstinence Society strips away the artifice and shows the process of research and how each new nugget of information informs the development of character and plot, and gives you the story that would have been written without quite writing it.  I particularly liked the way the flood of beer released in this story invades another.

Like any London street that has been around a while, An Acre of Barren Ground is a bit of a mixed bag, some things work better than others, but it is a book I will come back to, just as I get great satisfaction from walking through London, taking in the layers and layers of history and life that make it the city it is.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Open Queue


Sweet Thames flow softly copyright Cherry Potts 2011

It’s day two of London Open House and we’re off to Crossness Pumping Station.  This has been a long-held ambition, but with so much to choose from over the weekend it has taken, ooh, six years? to get here.  The instigator of this sudden resolve is our friend J who phoned and said:

I’m going, come with?

cobwebs copyright Cherry Potts 2011

So we did.  Trying to avoid using the car and with the promise of a special bus to meet the train, we meet J and C at Lewisham and get the train to Abbey Wood.  There is a bus … a minibus that seats 12.  I count the queue.  The bus takes half an hour to make its round trip… We are going to be here two hours.  We rebel and get a mini cab to the gates. We walk up to the back of the queue for the door, which is moving very slowly indeed. There is a distinct smell of drains, and I find myself absentmindedly humming Sweet Thames Flow Softly which we learnt over the summer.

Overwhelming Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Forty minutes later, we arrive at the door, and are given our tickets for the engine house.  We enter, and there is another queue.  We join it with dread, but it only takes another twenty minutes to finally reach the sacred portal and to be handed our hard hats.

Now.  Why would I be prepared to put myself through this?  I am not a patient kind of gal.  And visiting a sewage works isn’t your average glamorous London day out.  Well, the several thousand people who have visited Crossness will be grinning just now.

OTT painted ironwork copyright Cherry Potts 2011

It

Is

STUNNING.

Overwhelming, over the top, Ro-co-co (except it isn’t) Byzantine, laughter inducing mayhem.  The outside gives no clue to the interior.  The austere if decorative brickwork could be any typical Victorian engine shed – railway architecture at its best – Lombardy arcading, arched windows, bah blah.

floor copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Inside the first hall where the queue is, it is airy, spacious and light… and then, hat on head you enter the inner sanctum, and the dazzle and razzmatazz of the theatre takes over – every surface is moulded or filigreed, even the floors.  There is a feel of Moorish palace, except that the colours are wrong, and then there is the noise.

Flywheel at full tilt copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The beam engine is steady, regular, almost relaxed and surprisingly quiet, a sort of sigh and knock and hiss as it slides up and down, and the flywheel spins.  it is awesome in its grandeur.  There are four of these gracious monsters, but only one has been restored.  And only part of the engine house is painted back to its former glory, about which I am glad – I hope they don’t restore it completely, the ironwork is magnificent and the paint is garish, and whilst amusing, once painted the true skill of the iron casting is hidden.

And the still, silent end of the hall, is magnificent in its cathedral-like space.

Cathedral-like spaces copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Up the stairs, (also pierced into a pattern) there is yet more filigree floor, which is humming ever so gently.  I find this rather unnerving.  In fact it brings me out in a cold sweat.  I am quite relieved to get down again.

Stunning ironwork copyright Cherry Potts 2011

And yes, there is another queue to get into the basement.  The basement is very different dark, dusty and cramped.

Basement Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I’m not surprised the queue is so long, as we spend ages going round, and they can only let people in with a hard hat.

After a cup of tea and a bit of cake, we take advantage of the fact that there is a gate onto the Thames path (not normally open) and walk back to Woolwich along the river.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Thames path near Thamesmead copyright Cherry Potts 2011

London is Open


Mary Wollstonecraft's pew copyright Cherry Potts

Every year in September, buildings of historic, architectural and ecological note open for the public for free.  In London Open House is in full swing. Take a look at the overwhelming website – it’s all going on tomorrow as well.

Most years I go and feast my eyes and wear out my feet: holidays are planned around Open House we have to be in London the right weekend!  Fortunately, Heritage Open Days  which is similar but nationwide, is usually the weekend prior so some years we’ve managed both, although for the forseeable future we will be Singing for Water over H-O-D weekend.

So, A is busy with a family wedding, and I’m on my tod, and decide to take full advantage of the lovely Overground and quarter the borough of Hackney. I set off with my ‘favourites’ list and Transport For London maps, full of purpose and enthusiasm.

Graeae exterior copyright Cherry Potts 2011

First stop Hoxton.  I’ve been to the Geffreye Museum recently so I bypass it and head for Graeae Theatre’s offices and rehearsal space, right next door.  I bump into R, who I know from BSL classes and who works there, so I get a personal tour.  The building started life as a Tram depot and stables and has great arches all along the front which make for excellent natural light and a showcase for the sculptural logo that runs the entire length of the building.

Graeae rehearsal space copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The rehearsal space is particularly fine, with a sprung floor, and sophisticated lighting rig, all of which can be accessed and controlled from ground level.  The whole building has been thought out very carefully for access issues with textured flooring, good adaptable lighting, plenty of circulation space, induction loops… And according to R it really is a pleasure to work in.

Hoxton Hall detail copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Galvanised by this first venue, I toddle round the corner to Hoxton Hall, which is a very different kettle of fish – still with a drama theme – HH is a tiny musical hall.  It has done time as a temperance hall, a Quaker meeting-house and various other things, and is typical of theatres of its time in being seriously uncomfortable!  I notice a pile of patchwork cushions in the gallery, I’m sure they are needed.

Hoxton Hall performers copyright Cherry Potts

The Hall is being brought to life by a couple of performers, singing about wanting their beer and not getting it.  Disconcertingly they are flanked by a couple of headless dummies in theatrical costume, which in the dim lighting are a bit on the sinister side!

Newington Green Unitarian Church exterior copyright Cherry Potts

Back to the station and a short hop to Canonbury and then a stroll up to Newington Green for the Unitarian Church, at over 300 years old it is the oldest dissenting church in London that is still in use. Built when religious dissenters were still breaking the law ,and expanded since, it isn’t a particularly beautiful building, though it has a peaceful, open atmosphere (they were positively encouraging a young child to play the organ) and apparently the ball-hinges on the pew doors are rare… but it is its history that matters, both in terms of religious dissent, and in terms of feminism.  Mary Wollstonecraft worshipped here (pew 19), and I have a soft spot for her.

I am struck as I have been before, by the similarity of layout in religious buildings of this period, and the musical hall I have just come from.  Something about the galleries…

Newington Green Unitarian Church ball hinge copyright Cherry Potts 2011

I have a long list of other places I could go – a tower off Mare Street, The Hackney Empire, another theatre at Dalston (in the old Reeves paint factory), a tour of the East London Line stations… But I’m hungry and its trying to rain, and we are doing Crossness Pumping Station tomorrow, so back to Canonbury station and the train all the way home with no changes.  I love the Overground!

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011