Monday, 26 December 2011

Art and Sparkle in Piccadilly

This will be a meandering little blog about a meandering little walk I had in Piccadilly the other day. It’s been quite a sorrowful Christmastime, but just that little wander managed to lift my spirits. I love London, and I love how, even though I’ve lived here for over 20 years, I still come across undiscovered pockets and new surprises that make me smile, particularly because parts are always changing.

On this day, I was headed for the Criterion theatre in Piccadilly Circus as I had an extremely cheap ticket to the matinee of 39 Steps, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. My dreadful financial state (I was made redundant some months ago) means I rarely go out now, feeling the need to devote my time to more productive measures principally involving tweaking my c.v. and finding places to send it, then re-calculating my mass outgoings to see what else I can cut rather than lose my precious cats and my home. Still, I missed the theatre, and it was a really cheap seat. And, as you can probably imagine, I missed just leaving the house and briefly not focusing on the impending doom.

As the train wasn’t as late as usual, I arrived with time to kill and headed for the always surprisingly quiet and pleasant Starbucks on Piccadilly near St James’ Palace, taking a quieter route to avoid the Christmas crowds. First, I passed through Trafalgar Square and eyed the ever-present oddities there surrounded by entertained tourists, in this case men dressed as Batman and Charlie Chaplin, and someone with comical repartee on a tall unicycle in front of the National Gallery. I also snapped the famous Christmas tree from Oslo, a warming sight but somewhat muted (although muted is preferred when compared to some ostentatious or bizarre trees….see the South Bank Centre at the end of this entry.)

Even when I am barely celebrating Christmas, as is the case this year, and am thus a bit Scrooge-y, I find that I always enjoy Christmas lights. It does break the monotony of walking down a plain street, after all. It can be an added beauty, or at least a bubbly bit of sparkle even if it’s not to my taste. I paused again across from the entrance to the Royal Opera Arcade (and later the Burlington Arcade) to admire its Christmas garnish for drawing in the shoppers and making things a bit more special, before continuing on my walk.

Always keen to pass through a leafy square when I come across one (weak pun intended), I entered St James’s Square and was drawn to a huge contemporary sculpture that set off the nearby traditional hero-on-horse. It was certainly different and made me think of that Beatles album cover with severed doll’s heads. I loved how offbeat it was for this staid setting.

My general high speed walking and lack of patience has not, I’m afraid, adjusted suitably for my current state of unemployment, so I rushed through the square when I really should have paused to absorb the picture. Or at least to take a decent one--I did snap away with my bad handbag camera, but I was a bit inhibited by a burly security guard type nearby and signs around it warning people off. I can imagine it would otherwise be quite an adventure for a child prone to climbing, as the bronze is a massive five metres by seven metres, a bit like a scaled down ship in the Square. American Paul McCarthy's sculpture is called 'Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools 2010-2011' and is apparently part of his 'The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship' exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Piccadilly, which runs until 14 January. The St James’s Square sculpture remains until the next day. Naturally, the gallery’s website describes that artwork thus: “The massive new sculpture is a contemporary rephrasing of a medieval allegory, depicting a world of power without principle as the ship and its denizens hurtle obliviously towards their own destruction.” That’s pretty much what I was thinking when I went past. But if you’re in the area of Piccadilly shortly, do make your way through this peaceful square and enjoy this unusual sight.

Next, rushing up St James’s Street, something caught my eye in a pocket of concrete space on the right, which I initially assumed to be private but then realised it was open to passers-by. So rather than pass by, I cautiously went up the stairs to find myself in what is called The Economist Plaza, a small paved yard outside the publication’s office that seems to be used for temporary art installations. It is currently inhabited by several Antony Gormley-like figures, seated on benches and emerging from plinths. I only stopped briefly and, still with only my low-quality handbag camera, snapped some blurry images of the delights, which I’ve added here.

The mostly cast-iron figures form an installation by Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir called Situations, here since September with its run extended from early November owing to popularity, although I don’t know until when. The ‘show’ has been curated by Peter Osborne of Osborne Samuel Gallery . I won’t attempt to evaluate them artistically here or muse as to their meaning; I just admired them, particularly as I came across them unexpectedly. I was alone in a crowd of them for a bit and loved it.

In this day of dreadful theft of public art for scrap metal—such as the Barbara Hepworth’s Two Forms (Divided Circle) and Diane Gorvin’s Dr Salter's Daydream —it is wonderful to see that people have not yet shied away from the concept, and that not all of it has disappeared. Sadly, Steinunn’s website shows that she is not immune, as her Voyage was stolen from a four-metre high plinth in Hull in July and has not been recovered despite arrests having been made. One hopes that CCTV and new restrictions will curb this deplorable practice. One hopes. The scrap metal dealers out there who accept as scrap an obvious artwork and hand out cash for it (as they do railway cables and lead from church roofs) should be ashamed, but clearly have no shame. Or sense of value.

Anyway, despite my drifting onto a depressing flint of reality there, what I saw that morning uplifted me. It is marvellous that people go to great efforts and expense to make such treasures available to us for free, when most of us pass by unaware that it is there. But those who stumble across it are privileged with a secret illumination. And London is full of these treasures; they are everywhere.
When I managed to reach Starbucks on Piccadilly, I barely had time to pour the Chai Tea Latte down my throat as I’d been so pleasantly distracted on my journey. I ended up racing through the crowds on Piccadilly to reach the Criterion and take my place at the utterly wonderful production of 39 Steps, which I highly recommend—it’s delightful, amusing, fast and fun. I may witter on about that specifically another time. But do go.

After snapping a vague shot of the lights of Piccadilly Circus and the Regent Street Christmas lights after the grand show, I made my way to Covent Garden despite the awful rain because, suffering from Unemployed Syndrome, I mistook the day for Thursday (the days can run together without structure and meetings) and hoped to see a Thursday food market. Instead, I joined the tourists and shoppers in admiring the massive Christmas tree and reindeer in front of the market buildings, the giant baubles decorating the main parade, and the topiary candy canes hanging from the Central Avenue, to the tunes of a talented busker.

After that, I rushed to the train station to head home, feeling tremendously better than when I had left home, which I should try to do more often, even though I have so much to do there now. But London always lifts my spirits, just wandering around the streets, even without the Christmas lights.

I did mention the South Bank Centre Christmas trees, which I saw a week later when I met a friend there for lunch (which we had to abandon as all the restaurants were packed with families, so we crossed the river to the Strand and had a lovely lunch there instead). There were some beautifully plain ‘real’ trees outside donning only white lights, like my grandparents used to have on their deck and all around their house. But there were also white ones and bright red ones—I don’t mean the lights but the trees—and trees decorated with flags, and one adorned with pigeons, of course—fake pigeons. Quite awful, but still welcome as they were festive. And different. And, I like to imagine, a little bit tongue-in-cheek. So until my next meander that moves me, I shall leave you….Do go have a meander of your own. I am sure you will always be rewarded with some delightful discovery if you keep your eyes and mind aware.

(Incidentally, I would update my blog more often if Google would let me without repeatedly insisting that I clear caches, allow cookies from any stranger, and shut off all my security software just to sign into my account! Everyone else can cope without making such demands; it makes me wonder what Google is up to….)

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Things to Come (That Have Gone)

One of the many things I thought I would do after being made redundant was to keep up this blog better, writing regularly, as well as update my website on music reviews and the like (I have photos and notes of dozens of concerts I’ve never written up that might be worth a re-visit, most recently The Bible reunion, Neil Finn’s PaJaMa Club live UK debut, Johnny Mathis, and many others).

Unfortunately, I’ve somehow managed to have rather neglected both, but I think I shall somewhat weirdly go ahead and write up my typically detailed accounts of the various things I’ve attended, even though they won’t be current and are thus not news, and perhaps not so interesting. But I will anyway.

So the things that I will be writing about in the near future include the following events I have attended since leaving work in August:-

  • Jon Snow interviewing Jimmy Carter, at the end of which Peter Gabriel came on and led us in singing Happy Birthday to the former President
  • The Guardian investigative editor David Leigh on working (and falling out) with Julian Assange of Wikileaks
  • Andy McNab speaking on Afghanistan and generally rescuing hostages
  • Seeing Bitterns at the London Wetlands Centre
  • The Science of Secrecy, which included Simon Singh demonstrating a real Enigma Machine
  • Peter Doggett on David Bowie in the 1970s
  • Open House tours of the Park Lane Hotel and 55 Broadway (I love Art Deco), Lambeth Palace and Strawberry Hill
  • The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation evening focusing on the sadly real prospect of A World Without Tigers
  • Craving, Collecting and Caring for Album Covers at the Victoria & Albert Museum, with speakers including music journalist Paul Du Noyer and the editor of Record Collector Rare Record Price Guide, Ian Shirley
  • Jeremy Paxman talking on Empire.
  • Sir Terry Farrell speaking on Postmodern architecture
  • A sociable discussion after hours at the Natural History Museum on the ethics of wildlife photography
  • Architectural critic Hal Foster speak on ‘starchitects’ and the relationship between art and architecture
  • A technical wildlife photography workshop at the London Wetlands Centre with Mark Carwardine
  • The marvellous inaugural WildlifeXpo at Alexandra Palace, with talks by Mark Carwardine, Nick Baker, Paul Goldstein and others on wildlife photography and tourism, Kangaroo Island, Alaskan bears, Polar Bears and the best places to see wildlife.
  • An Art Deco tour of Eltham Palace
  • Victoria & Albert Museum Study Days on Designing the Decades: 1930s and 1980s
  • War Horse (the outstanding play, not yet the exhibition)
  • The annual Durrell Lecture, this year on the marvellous Madagascar
  • Nigel Warburton speaking on philosophy
  • Simon Russell Beale speaking on his work with director Sam Mendes
  • Franny Moyle speaking about Mrs Oscar Wilde
  • The 10th Annual Earthwatch debate, where various experts vied for our votes to choose their concern as the most important environmental challenge we face today (eg food security, energy, oceans, water scarcity, overpopulation) .
  • The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum
  • Experts speaking on Pulitzer-prize winning poet Robert Frost
  • Thought-provoking World Monuments Fund talks on UK sites on the Watch list, with presentations on fine buildings that have ‘vanished’ by authors Philip Davies (Lost London) and Gavin Stamp (Lost Victorian Britain)
  • The Guardian’s Head of Digital Engagement Meg Pickard on how publishing news content has changed in the face of social media and the internet
  • Various King James Bible readings at the National Theatre in celebration of its anniversary
  • My first time attending a church service in the UK other than for a funeral, although it was the annual bereavement service.

Obviously, that’s just a dull list right now, but I hope to bring it to life soon with detailed descriptions of the various wonderful events and lectures I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying during my enforced leisure time. So if any of that seems remotely interesting, tune in again and I’ll get cracking for a change (in between stints of searching for my dream job—or at least a suitable income--and re-jigging my c.v.) and keep my blog better updated, even if it’s largely updated with out-of-date stuff. But I hope some of it might be useful reading for people who could not be at these events but would like to learn more about them. Later.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Tea & Coffee Winter Festival – South Bank Centre

The South Bank Centre never ceases to amaze me with all it offers, and much for free. I used to simply rush to concerts there and run for my train just afterwards, never fully appreciating everything the Centre has to offer. Recently, I’ve learned that it’s a welcoming all-round arts centre, not just a concert venue, where people can go at any time of day to seek refuge from the cold and rain, view free art and photography exhibitions (including a current one of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees or the World Press Photo Exhibition I mention below) enjoy various activities, get some food and shop, use the loos (not that that's considered art), or just sit and read or get some work done courtesy of its free wi-fi. In addition, it frequently has excellent markets outside. At present, there are individual little chalets lining the river embankment selling crafts and jewellery that may make excellent Christmas gifts. (Though if you are looking for unusual, artistic and enormously appealing jewellery, be sure to check out the outstanding Dazzle exhibition upstairs at the neighbouring National Theatre).

In addition, this weekend there is a Tea and Coffee Festival on the square off Belvedere Road, as you approach from Waterloo Station. You may well walk past it without realising all the goodies available and the quality of the exhibitors, plus there are free talks and demonstrations, so I recommend you check it out.

On Friday, I stopped by briefly but did plenty of calorific and monetary damage, and managed to attend one talk, which was on “Re-inventing British Afternoon tea” by Lady Henrietta Lovell, founder of the award-winning Rare Tea Company. As she spoke extemporaneously about the history of tea generally—and pretty much everything you could hope to know about tea-- and naturally was there to plug her company and its hand-made real tea, it was perhaps not specifically focused on what we picture as the tourist-luring special occasions at the Ritz, Savoy or Browns. In fact, she was highly critical of the Ritz, which she said serves Champagne, not tea, with way too many sweet cakes and charges £50 for it, and she stressed the need to return the focus to the true tradition of high tea. She also taught us that all fruit teas are just hibiscus with chemicals that we should avoid, that it’s a myth that green tea is caffeine-free, that the cheap green tea we suffer is bitter because the leaves should not be broken (pricier green tea, like hers and others available at the festival, uses the whole leaf), that Britain gets the dregs of the tea crop and in bleached bags (she wants to ban bags from our kitchen and psyche), that the water shouldn’t be boiling when we pour it on real tea nor should we warm the teapot, that there’s no tea made in Yorkshire (or by chimps), and that it should be worth investing in special tea for special occasions the same way we spring for champagne, excellent wine or fancier coffee when we entertain. Some of her educational revelations were fascinating, and I wholly applaud her support for the smaller tea farmers rather than the mass producers, particularly as it helps Malawi farmers and villages, and even tigers, which some allow to roam through their land.

I fear she might have misjudged her audience a few times by speaking to us as though we regularly have people over for afternoon tea when most will be at work or struggling to heat the house, and I doubt everyone recognised all the names she admitted to dropping, such as the restaurants (of those, Murano and Fat Duck may have struck a chord) or the chefs (Angela Hartnett, Mark Hix) she proudly supplied, as we’re just in a different world. She even whispered “Sainsbury’s” so quietly as a supplier of her RAF tea that someone had to ask her to repeat it, and perhaps that’s more our world. But I'm certainly not alluding to snobbery, and her enthusiasm was infectious, her tea seems impressively ethical, and we were all terrifically enlightened about what it takes to bring tea to us and how it’s best enjoyed. Also, the Silver-Tipped Jasmine Tea she served the audience was lovely, and I really am savouring my purchase of her delectable RAF tea. The RAF tea is a bespoke tea she made for a former Spitfire pilot to remind him of the fine tea he got before the war, which she then began producing at the request of the RAF, with some proceeds going to the Wings Appeal charity. I may give a more detailed account of her full talk another time. Naturally, her fine teas were available to buy from a stall at the exhibition (or on her website, which also has preparation advice, details of how the tea is handmade using small farmers in Malawi, and videos with Alexander Armstrong amusingly telling you to buy her RAF tea. His name is misspelled in both headings on the site, but the tea’s good).

All the people at the exhibition standing behind tented tables with beautiful pastries, breads and tins of coffee or tea before them deserve more attention than you might think. For instance, Outsider Tart is on one corner, and the name doesn’t roll off the tongue but their products will certainly enliven it. The company, with a shop in Chiswick, was started by two Americans who rued the lack of bakeries in England like the ones we have at home (snap). So they started one, full of real brownies and cupcakes, giant chewy peanut butter cookies, coconut cream pies (my favourite as a child), red velvet cakes, and early whoopie pies. Their online shop also sells ‘dry goods’ that we Americans miss (like grits, A1 sauce and Saltines) and has a Barkery (baked treats for dogs), although I don’t believe they were on sale at the South Bank. Their cookbook was on sale, called Baked in America. As I couldn’t buy the whole stall for reasons of finance and weight-control, I tried a Blondie brownie (something from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about; I seem to recall they contain butterscotch chips) and it was divine; a pumpkin brownie (similar to a yummy pumpkin pie, perfect for Thanksgiving next Thursday had it lasted that long, with a marbled pumpkin top with [I’d guess] nutmeg offsetting the sweetness of the bottom layer of chocolate); and a Hepburn chocolate brownie, which I believe had dark cocoa and cinnamon. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a more detailed description because whilst their website shows an extensive choice of products, it doesn’t seem to describe them, which may inhibit new explorers….but I’m sure they’re all delicious. Understand that these are nothing like the recent feeble attempts at brownies that one finds in UK sandwich outlets, but the Real Thing--massive, luscious, chewy, extremely moist, and full of natural flavour. I encourage you to visit this stall and indulge a bit.

I also couldn’t resist the On Café stand with their unique macarons (“French patisseries with modern Asian flavours” made using handmade purees). Ladurée in the (currently) beautiful Burlington Arcade is no longer my only destination for amazing macarons, ever since I came across On Café at Real Food festivals at the South Bank. They have unusual flavours beautifully executed, hand decorated macarons such as Pink Peach & Champagne, Black Sesame with Chocolate Ganache & Glace Ginger, jasmine tea and charcoal, and dark chocolate with salted caramel Cornish cream. The people selling them are always happy and welcoming, and they now have a permanent home at Harvey Nichols, but here’s a great chance to pick some up whilst enjoying the rest of the festival. My sole complaint would be that it would be helpful if they inserted a little menu of the flavours in their boxes, or had one available to pick up, so that you knew what you were eating when you got them home or when you handed them to the host of your dinner party. On Saturday at the festival, On’s Loretta Liu was to give a baking demonstration on the tea macaron, but I was there on Friday (although I can’t boil water without burning it so it would have been wasted on me, but it would be interesting to observe, particularly as there is normally a fee for attendance at the On cookery school).

I also stocked up at the Teapigs stand (fairly traded, ‘real tea’). I’d recently made an effort to drink more green tea as it’s meant to be better for you, but I really hated it until I found Teapigs’ Popcorn Tea. It’s a bit like drinking liquid popcorn, without the salt and butter of course, and makes the green tea experience enjoyable. Apparently Japanese peasants traditionally mixed green tea with toasted rice, now described as having a “sugar puffs undertone”. I bought more of that as well as their spiced Chai tea (I haven’t yet tried it but usually love Chai)—though I was tempted by their Chilli Chai, with flakes of real chilli. Curious about their Spiced Winter Red tea (orange, cloves and cinnamon on a red tea base), I was given a steaming sample that sold me; it’s particularly rich and scrummy with milk. I also bought their Chocolate Flake tea, which is meant to save you the trouble and full calories of dunking a chocolate biscuit in your tea. I must confess that, when I’ve been served Teapigs English Breakfast tea at The Anthologist and Giraffe, it was nothing like as nice as these teas, but I can probably blame my bad blending and dislike of the full fat milk I was given. Certainly, you should visit the Teapigs stand and try some of their huge variety of teas, or their website, where you can choose appropriate teas for your mood, including ‘in a rut’.

There are also, as you can imagine, many stands selling special coffee, which were popular (I can’t recommend a particular brand as I don’t drink coffee). A few are providing demonstrations or talks on Sunday. The Ethiopian Coffee Company will demonstrate at 1pm the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which apparently is the main social event within villages there, consisting of women in traditional dress roasting green beans over a small charcoal brazier then pounding them in a mortar before brewing and handing round the coffee in small cups.
After that event on Sunday, coffee roasters Dark Fluid will give a coffee roasting demonstration and talk. Other coffee exhibitors include Bean About Town serving hand-pulled espresso; Kopi, which will deliver a ‘subscription’ of gourmet coffee to you each month; Organo Gold (OG) organic gourmet coffee and hot beverages; and the highly praised Sea Island Coffee (“specialising in rare and exotic coffees including the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain, Hawaii Kona and Kopi Luwak Civet Cat coffees”), which supplied the 2011 GQ Man of the Year Awards and MTV Europe VIP goody bags. (As no doubt you know 'cause you were there.)

Other tea exhibitors included Choi Time (renowned, quality Chinese green tea); Comins Tea House (fine loose teas and teaware, which I regret having missed), Kush (Jamaican herbal teas, which seemed to draw a crowd), the East India Tea Company (which attracted quite a few apparent tourists buying gifts); and Typhoo teas (including their Heath & Heather infusions).

The food stalls looked amazing, including:-
--the Sweet Tooth Factory serving tea and coffee flavoured cheesecakes as well as impressive cupcakes;
--Merry Widows selling wine including spiced tea mulled wine;
--Jaz and Juls homemade organic hot chocolate (eg Chilli con Choccy and Quite White);
--The Flour Station artisan bread, which seemed to be doing quite well;
--Tasty Burley fudge;
--Tantalising giant cookies from Gelata; and
--the Continental Bakery chock-full of tempting pastries and breads.

Finally, there was plenty of hot food on offer, including Arancini Bros’ risotto balls prepared to order, very tempting to this vegetarian though I didn’t have a chance to try it; Bhangra Burgers, selling Eastern spiced beef, lamb, veggie & fish burgers; and Jamon Jamon with inviting pans of Spanish paella. In addition, Rococo Pod chocolate was also serving hot drinks, and the family-run Churros Garcia, supplying naughtiness billed as a ‘typical Spanish breakfast and snack’. I know we Americans are known for sweet breakfast foods, but this takes the, um, cake. I was lured in with a sample, and the portions were generous. It’s basically ridged strips of fried dough covered in sugar and cinnamon, which you then dip into chocolate sauce, which for the Tea and Coffee festival, is mocha chocolate sauce, of course. Yes, it’s yummy, but no, I wouldn’t recommend eating it for breakfast every day—as you shouldn’t any doughnuts. In fact, I would have welcomed a half-priced half-portion, and had I not consumed this during my visit, I’d probably have bought more goodies from other stands, but it helped me realise that I didn’t need much more sugar for a while. But it’s a fun, unusual treat, and this is a fun, unusual festival after all. Other hot food was being served around the Festival; apparently Beppino’s was offering pasta and La Marmotte offering food from the French Alps, but I somehow missed them—unless one was the stall offering a variety of hot (including vegetarian) wraps.

So basically, what might look like a small food market that you rush past on your way to the station or a concert is something much more special that you should stop and visit. You can quickly grab a hot snack or meal or pause to browse the incredibly fine foods for sale. If you have more time, you can sit in on one of the free talks or demonstrations (given in an open tent near the steps up to the Royal Festival Hall below the Mandela statue).

Sunday’s talks, in addition to the aforementioned Dark Fluid coffee roasting demonstration and Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony (and really, where else are you going to see such a thing?), include a talk by the East India Company on its introduction of tea to Britain, and two baking demonstrations by Caroline Hope, first on how to make the perfect coffee-flavoured sponge cake with coffee butter icing, and second, how to make the perfect scone.

So if, like me, you love tea (or unlike me, love coffee), and perhaps want to venture from PG Tips or Nescafe occasionally, this is a grand opportunity to explore the fine stuff out there, all in one compact place, with an amazing choice of delectable accompaniments. Several of the products would make great Christmas or host gifts, as well, or you could just be selfish like me and shamelessly scoff the lot yourself as soon as you get home.

The Tea and Coffee Winter Festival finishes at 6pm on Sunday, 20 November (opening at 11am), and can be found at Southbank Centre Square (behind the Royal Festival Hall), Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XX. Admission is free.

World Press Photo Exhibition - South Bank Centre

Before I left the Tea and Coffee Festival at the South Bank Centre, laden with goodies and loads of new teas to try, I popped into the Royal Festival Hall for a moment and accidentally stumbled upon the World Press Photo Exhibition, also free. There were numerous images that many might find disturbing, including several of corpses, a Kenyan woman whose (underwear-covered) crotch was bleeding profusely after being given an illegal abortion with a knitting needle, 60 prisoners living in a 25 sq.m. cell in a Sierra Leone prison, many people suffering after various natural disasters or awful conflicts or massacres, an Agent Orange victim, and even a burning man falling from a church tower. All fortunately had beside them an explanation of the important tale they were telling us. There were numerous images that were truly moving; certainly all were striking (I don’t just mean the footballer getting kicked in the mouth), and many were indisputably important.

One does wonder though whether it’s always right to show some of these subjects just because you can. Do you need to show a series of photographs of men fighting, one being stabbed, then dying, then lying dead, or is it sufficient to show just one picture of a fight with a caption saying one of the fighting men survived and the other was later chased and brutally killed? I wouldn't suggest that for the exhibition—and I don’t usually support censorship anyway and know different countries have different standards and views—but I’m thinking, for instance, of the blatant pictures of Gaddafi covered in blood after being injured and, worse, after being killed, which were smeared across the front page of newspapers and seemed unnecessary and in poor taste for publications such as The Guardian (somehow I was even surprised by the ghastliness of the the front page of the Sun ).

That particular picture was not in this exhibition (maybe next year), but I sometimes worry that news agencies these days—particularly television news channels—are so desperate to one-up their rivals that they’ll sink to any low, barely pausing for reflection before showing something because it's "exclusive", even if that means displaying someone’s suffering or another thing we may consider to be unbearably appalling. Presumably that is one issue that will be discussed in a linked free talk being held at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, 23 November, at 7pm, on the ethics of photojournalism called A Photo Says 1000 Words? The Ethics of Photojournalism. (I’m tempted to attend but it’s first-come, first-served, and I tend to scrape in at the last minute, ie last-come, no matter how hard I try).

On my way out when I had too little time to do it justice, I found that the exhibition continued on the west side near the Mandela statue. I hope to get back to devote more time to this part, which included a nature category section, full of Whooper swans from what I could tell, with other powerful pictures in different categories. A remarkable photograph of a gannet coming at the camera caught my attention from far away; I was surprised to find it was a real bird and not a colourful Disney animation still.

Apologies that I don’t have details of the photographers, who clearly are key, because I rushed through and wasn’t expecting to write anything about it, but felt compelled to add a mention after writing about the Tea and Coffee Festival. The website, where apparently all the images can be viewed and the photographers properly credited, but which sadly is not working properly on my Windows 7 PC-- is here: .
The exhibition can be viewed until 29 November from 10am to 10.30pm each day, for free. It’s spread around the Royal Festival Hall, so be careful not to miss any of it as I have. You can also download the iPhone App for about £4 from iTunes.

Do take a look, even if you've little interest in photography. Some of the awesome images will wake you up to important issues of which you otherwise may have been unaware, and keep you thinking for quite some time.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

PaJaMa Club at The Borderline – Saturday, 16 July

Last night was the premier UK gig of Neil Finn’s new project, PaJaMa Club, which you technically could call an ‘indie band’ whose other Members comprise his wife Sharon (hence the ‘pa’ and ‘ma’ reference—which wouldn’t work with the British spelling of jimjams) on bass, Sean Donnelly (also known as SJD, a solo performer and Don McGlashan collaborator) on keyboards and guitar, and Alana Skyring (formerly of Australian band The Grates) on drums.

Like everyone else, I was initially keen to go see the band because any Neil Finn performance is unmissable. That morning, however, I was slightly less enthusiastic when picturing queuing in a dreadful downpour outside the Borderline in order to get a decent spot. Particularly after listening to the beginning of the only PJC track available, From a Friend to a Friend (listen on, as frankly it initially did little for me, particularly with its minimalist vocals and wailing guitar effects. Upon arrival in Soho, my friend agreed that the music was a bit experimental, and that’s not usually a word that bodes as well for the paying public as it does for the experimenting artist.

Perhaps my wet wariness and doubt was useful in contributing to my being so pleasantly surprised by the concert. The music seemed heavily influenced by early 1980s and late ‘70s electronica, of which I have always been a fan. The band even slipped seamlessly from Suffer Never, one of only two songs from Neil’s past that they played (the other being his collaboration with Sharon on his 7 Worlds Collide project), into a delightful cover of Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric?, sung very much like Gary Numan would. One song’s influence sounded like an unexpected mix between Kraftwerk and The Waitresses. The fact that some excellent Talking Heads classics were playing as we waited in the club might also have been a hint that PJC were in similar minds or musical corners. There were still very catchy Neil Finn-style choruses to reward us as well, although impressively, this was clearly a distinct project, and the songs were not material that could have just as easily been on a Crowded House or Finn Brothers album.

The band itself was likeable and not just the backdrop behind Neil Finn’s star. Australian drummer Alana Skyring looked like a sweet, gentle, young, unassuming character practically in a sweater set who you might bump into at a church bake sale, not at all the tough rock musician sort one might expect. Perhaps that made me think of her and Auckland keyboardist Sean Donnelly (who donned a tea cosy on his head) like The Other Two from New Order. They fit in well; both were clearly lovely people who were very much part of the whole, not just backing musicians, and Donnelly often joined in with a bit of banter, not quite the quickfire wit exchanges with Neil that we are used to with past stage companions like brother Tim and Nick Seymour, but I’m sure it will develop. Overall, it left one with a fuzzy feeling that these were nice people on stage who happened to make great music for us.

As this was their first gig together in the UK, the four often shared endearing smiles when they were pleased with how each track had come together, although as the material was so new, the acutely attentive audience rarely knew when to applaud and often did so only after seeing Neil turn to the band and say ‘Yeah! That was good!’ which was our cue that we had missed our cue. Sharon seemed often to look to her husband for reassurance, which she always got, and he easily spoke of the pleasure in playing with his beautiful wife. For a great deal of the concert, her soft vocals were drowned out and I could only tell if she were singing by watching, but later she had a few solo or contrasting parts that helped her really stand out.

Whilst I have numerous detailed comments I want to make about the songs, the banter, and the entire experience, budget cuts that are making me redundant mean that Friday may be my last day of work at a place where I’ve spent half my life (about 20 years). What that means in terms of this concert (apart from it being an excellent ‘redundancy present’ from my friend Lesley) is that I don’t have the time now to write up a full review for my neglected website as I must focus on the work I’ve brought home, but that I will have plenty of time after next week (amidst sending off job applications!) to write up more fully this review and myriad others that have long been stored in my head and in scribbles on various notepads now languishing around the flat—including other Finn concerts. So watch that space….

For now, I just set out below the set list with a few quick comments [actually, they turned out much longer than expected]. The titles may be wrong, and the worst thing about the gig was that the album does not come out until September, which is a cruel wait. I had rather hoped they would be selling something on the tour, even an EP of the tunes, but there were only T-shirts, though you can purchase by download the Friend track (

1. Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends – Overly strong thumping bass drowned out the subtle vocals until Neil thankfully reach a part where he did a bit of belting out, which was grand. As he did several times during the gig, Neil played a small keyboard in front of him as well as electric guitar. Some vaguely Suffer Never style music with keyboard effects and an electric guitar solo stretched out at the end, and overall not the punchiest start to a gig, but then the excitement of seeing them for the first time was enough to wow the crowd. I imagine this song will be much stronger on the album and maybe first night nerves or shaky mixing weakened it, but the verses, full of weak ‘woo-oo’-ing, and instrumentation did little for me, though I may have been alone, considering its reception.

2. These Are Conditions – Fantastic song, with a sort of angry male chorus that reminded me of Heaven 17 and Human League in the early days when they were fascinating. Additional angry males were the crew, including one youngster from Te Awamutu who we’d watched tuning the guitars and folding and sellotaping the set lists before the gig and having to keep moving them as the audience began to scrutinise them. The middle drifted into a sea of dreamy effects that the band is prone to, but the song was the best of new wave meets enjoyable funk.

3. Dead Leg – The first song where Neil sang the verses in a more conventional way, albeit still competing with a fuzz guitar sound; I still couldn’t hear Sharon, and other ‘woo-ing’ backing vocals sounded slightly off key. It may have been the mixing, my position in the club (front stage right), or what they’re going for, but it seemed to be a mass of echo-y sounds that were fine, but not memorable, although the chorus was better. We clapped only after we watched Neil speak to the band about how it went—not because it wasn’t enjoyable, we just didn’t know the song inside out, which is probably refreshing.

4. Diamonds in Her Eyes - I’ve just realised that these points sound really critical when the gig was tremendously enjoyable overall. But when this song started, I found myself wincing repeatedly as it sounded as though Neil Finn and his band were singing a wonderful song in one room with thin walls but were being drowned out by awful drilling sounds as someone carried out works, but rather than drilling, it was someone playing Space Invaders or Asteroids unbelievably loudly. In other words, I thought the keyboard effects during the song should have been much more toned down or at least vaguely integrated with what was a bright, upbeat feel of a song. But again, maybe it was because I was closer to the keyboards, though given that I love electronica, I don’t think that’s the only excuse. I am certain I will love this song when it is eventually released. The lack of applause at the end was because no one realised they were moving straight from one unfamiliar song to another.

5. Go Kart – Terrific fun, with Sharon singing quite a bit on her own, though she was still hard to hear particularly over imposing guitars, but she seemed to be singing saucily ‘Are you ready for me?’, which the crowd loved. What I did hear reminded me pleasantly of the attitude of The Waitresses, and then Neil would kick in with an ultra-catchy chorus of ‘I saw you standing there’, with some synth and bass effects that reminded me of Kraftwerk and Translator. My friend Lesley thought it was a bit Split Enz meets Talking Heads. This song was definitely a high point, and I can’t wait to hear it when I can really hear it.

6. Golden Child – (After Neil decided the venue was familiar and asked if it was the place they played a few years ago—about 20 years ago, someone pointed out—and he apologised to friends he had told the Borderline was in Covent Garden). This started with Neil and Sharon singing in harmony throughout, with music that was finally peaceful enough for us actually to hear Sharon. Initially, some of the guitar notes (Sean and Neil were both on guitar) sounded so off key that I almost thought they would stop and start over—or as though the two guitarists were playing different tunes at once, but I’m starting to wonder if I was listening badly, or maybe I was hearing Cam(?) tuning the next guitar as he was near me…..At times, it reminded me of son Liam’s first hit, Second Chance. Sean joined in with pleasantly deep John Gorka-style vocals, and the audience really loved it.

7. TNT For 2 – Absolutely stunning song. Wonderful tune with Neil belting out excellent vocals throughout that had our toes tapping. He had moved to the keyboards by me (and did a great Doors-like keyboard solo) and Sean played guitar near Sharon. Brilliant and yet so different from any previous Finn fare. Much of the music was playfully slinky, then Neil and Sean’s deep vocals blended marvellously to create some Spanish-style handsome wailing with amazing integrity. Outstanding, and I hope they release this before September.

8. Suffer Never – The only real nod to the past; there was no Weather With You or Don’t Dream It’s Over tonight, which made sense. As a Tim Finn fan since my teens, I would never be able to say this was as good a rendition as the original Finn song, but it was wonderful. Neil beamed quite a bit at the audience and eventually I realised that he seemed to be making the night of some people who were photographing him, which was kind, though I’ve no doubt he was generally pleased with how the night was going. At the end of the track, Sean faultlessly synced in a synth riff that worked wonderfully and then turned into…..

9. Are Friends Electric? – My face was covered in smile. This was such a clever, seamless transition, a fantastically fun nod to the sort of music that was obviously a part of the PJC ethic, and I assumed they’d just treat us to a few lines and stop, but they performed the whole Tubeway Army tune, quite faithfully, with Neil singing like Gary Numan rather than delivering a Crowded House-style guitar-led version. Which might be neat some time, but this brought the house down.

10. Game We Love – A grinning Neil said ‘this is fun’ and looked as though he was about to banter, but Sean had started delivering mouth percussion (ie making drum sounds with his voice) to start the next song, which worryingly began a bit like Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, but quickly moved on to something very PJC, with more of a nod to Finn than other songs. It had a dreamy feel, heavy bass, wailing echo-y vocals. Neil stood looking half-naked without a guitar so nearly did a dad dance, and the song stopped suddenly, unfortunately to someone in the audience shouting ‘F—k off!’, which might have been a way of saying ‘I say, that was jolly good, chaps!’ Neil was clearly thrilled with how the song had gone, which was lovely. He then tested the popularity of various English towns by calling out ‘Grimsby!’ ‘Weston-Super-Mare’ (following on from some previous banter and his reference to how, on the Letterman show, you could shout out any tiny town’s name and someone in the audience from there would cheer). He marvelled that everywhere got cheers but Bath, oddly, got boos, so ‘Grimsby was bigger than Bath in London.’

11. Daylight – A delightfully frothy chorus, quite catchy. I won’t injure it by saying it was vaguely of the Travis ilk, it’s just that it seemed very positive and happy a la ‘daylight, it’s all right’, which is no bad thing, and Neil seemed understandably happy that the crowd was already joining in on a new song. This will surely be worth listening out for when it’s in its final polished form on a recording, and I could see it as a single, although it’s not their best song. The crowd loved it.

12. From a Friend to a Friend – Loads of effects to sift through to find the vocals, but clearly they’re not prioritising vocals here. This was better than the version I’d heard online, which did not impress me, and Sean’s deep backing vocals added a great deal of character and depth, as the verses sounded a bit weak. As different layers of the song were piled on, it did sound more interesting, and I imagine it will grow on me considerably. It drew great cheers from the crowd.

13. Tell Me What You Want – this was a true highlight of the evening. Neil moved to the drum set, and Alana stood beside him playing other drums. Sean told us Neil had told him off as he walked past, which Neil denied and said they were words of encouragement. He indulged in a quick drum solo for fun (the unexpected whack of the hi-hat was his ‘favourite bit’), then said ‘right, onto business’ and they played a marvellous song that Sharon—finally audible—led on vocals, seductively singing the title as a refrain at the beginning, before Neil sang the verses from the drum set in back, until Sharon joined in with her refrain again and it blended together wonderfully. Steamy and catchy, another song I can’t wait to own.

The band then left the tiny stage, with Neil stepping down but waiting for his wife to reach him, then offering his hand to help her down the few steps. It was lovely to see how they interact after almost 30 years of marriage.


14. Little By Little – The only other nod to the past, this being the recent past, from Neil’s 7 Worlds Collide project, the first release where he and Sharon shared vocals.

15. Don’t Look Back – (After some toilet humour) I hear that guests on Dermot O’Leary’s BBC Radio 2 show have to play a classic song as well as their own, and that PJC had played Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back that afternoon. (You can listen to it until about 23 July 2011 here: I don’t believe this was planned for the night’s performance; Neil spoke to the others and then announced that they were going to try something on stage that they had not tried before (which is when someone yelled out ‘Toilet?’ which led to Neil recounting a toilet seat incident). This was a real treat, Neil’s voice sounded a bit Johnny Cash, clear and deep, until he went wild Neil-style at the end, and happily we could hear it clearly without being drowned out by any effects. Afterwards, he apologised to Bob for mauling his lyrics, though he said he’d added a mention of ‘encyclopaedia’, of which he thought Bob would have approved, and then noted his own unfortunate habit of drawing attention to his mistakes.

16. It’s Alright – A cover of the ESG (Emerald, Sapphire and Gold) song, all funk and long guitar sections with a lot more of the ‘experimental’ thrown in. Eventually, the crowd started clapping to the beat and, with Neil’s encouragement, sang along to the chorus.

Then the band went off to rapturous cheers at about 10.30pm, having started at 9pm on the dot. I can categorically say that the audience were thrilled with a magnificent evening, and the band seemed justifiably pleased with their UK debut as well.

I will put more photographs (no great ones as I don’t like to use flash, and Neil in particular rarely keeps still) on my website when I write up a full account of the night. Meanwhile, a brief video clip of the group performing perhaps at Neil’s home is one of the few things available on the official website at: . If you join their mailing list, you get a chance to download for free From a Friend to a Friend, but if you don’t love that, bear in mind that’s one of their lesser songs. Do go see them if you can as they have just started touring the UK, and this stellar show is bound to become more polished and glowing. (Incidentally, support artist Sam Scott, of The Phoenix Foundation, was worth getting there early for and held the fortunately well-behaved and kind audience captive, and I’ll review his performance on my site in due course, too.)

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Ron Sexsmith at the Barbican Centre, London - 30 April

Although I usually make full use of all that London has to offer in terms of fine music and theatre, Saturday was to be my last concert, as there is no more space on the credit cards and I am highly likely to be told on Friday that I’ll be made redundant, which will see me bankrupt and homeless by the end of the year. So it was an important concert to me, not just because of that and the need for some cheering up, but because it was the great Ron Sexsmith. Sadly, I’d been off work for a few days, having hurt my back, and kept having setbacks so hadn’t left the house since Tuesday. In the morning, I couldn’t see how I would make it into town and back. But I was determined, and thanks to some encouragement and to Nurofen with codeine, I made it, and it was so worth it.

An example of Ron’s unassuming nature, his humility and kindness was when he worried aloud that he’d been unable to deliver a cheeky fan’s request for the original handwritten lyric to what Ron called his most romantic song, Tomorrow in Her Eyes, which he’d written for his sweetheart, who I thought (when watching the insightful documentary Love Shines) provided tremendous support for him and indeed was working the merchandise table that night at the Barbican Centre. This fan had asked for the penned lyric to give it to his own love, for whom the song was special, and Ron said he’d searched the house to no avail. So what he had done was copy out the lyrics in his own hand. 'Would that be all right?' He seemed genuinely concerned and listened for the answer, which you can imagine, and Ron leaned out across the first rows of the audience to hand it to said elated fan, who shook his hand, as the woman seated beside him dabbed her tearful eyes and looked luckier than Kate Middleton. I did wonder if Ron had just spoiled a birthday surprise or proposal, until I realised that there was nothing spoilt about having the man himself hand you this stupendous gift.

This was just one incident at the concert that demonstrated Ron’s efforts to please and act genuinely in all he does. No airs of the big star he should be. This man is special. Even if everyone else comes to recognise his supreme talent as a songwriter one day, he will still remain that special as he is a good, pure soul. His fans see that, and there should be more of them. They include Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Ray Davies, Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Feist and Chris Martin of Coldplay. Presumably, as they were apparently in the audience on Saturday, one could add the excellent Nick Lowe (who has covered a Sexsmith song) and Haircut 100’s Nick Heyward.

Whenever I see Ron Sexsmith in concert, I’m reminded that he should also realise how special he is, because he just doesn’t. It’s endearing, but it’s also a bit tragic, particularly when one hears him say in the documentary Love Shines, about the production of his latest album, Long Player Late Bloomer, that he’d seriously been considering giving up singing/songwriting. More absurdities are revealed, like that despite having written an enormous repertoire of truly brilliant songs over 12 albums, he still does his laundry himself at a laundrette, and he couldn’t afford a piano even though he writes on one, so his wife was poignantly moved when someone gave him one for his birthday, thus helping the world, even those who don’t know it yet and still have to discover this buried treasure.

But I’m saying way too much now, considering this is just meant to be a set list, and I’ll write up a proper ‘review’, or a play-by-play account for my website ( later. I thought I’d posted the set list when I got home after midnight on Sunday, but something seems to have gone wrong, just as I’d hoped to have written the fuller account by now. That will come, but I must now focus on the busy week at work, particularly as Friday is D-Day, but I’ll be smiling, thanks to Ron, as I do so.

Following the engaging theatre that is a Jim White set, full of amazing tales of Florida near-redneck living, Ron came on with a truly talented band of four musicians, and they played the following in a set that lasted about one hour and 40 minutes:-

1. Heart’s Desire

2. Get in Line

3. The Reason Why

4. Thinking Out Loud

5. Hard Bargain [He said they weren’t going to do this song until they heard that Emmylou Harris had recorded it—indeed named her album after it—and they figured she must know something]

6. Just My Heart Talkin’

7. Believe It When I See It [He apologised for his performance on Later….With Jools Holland this week, sadly his first BBC performance, as he’d been tired and said he did the worst ever version of it….and wish him luck tonight as there were lots of high notes]

8. Wastin’ Time

9. Slow Learner

10. Brandy Alexander [written with (Leslie) Feist about his favourite cocktail]

11. Gold in Them Hills [Ron on the piano, after sheepishly suggesting he barely dared play piano in front of the skilled pianist, Dave Matheson, and claiming the Barbican’s grand piano would help him sound better than he was]

12. Nowadays [He joked that this and the next few songs were ‘far too complex for the rest of the band’ so they left just him and Dave to play them]

13. Tomorrow in Her Eyes [as I said, written for his sweetheart, possibly the most romantic song he’d ever written, now more so after he made an audience member’s night....]

14. Dandelion Wine [because someone had requested it before the show; Ron now on his own]
15. Speaking with the Angel [written for his then baby son, and Ron said the thing he disliked about the Love Shines documentary was the director implied that he and his son were not close, but they were and watched the premiere together]

16. Strawberry Blonde [the band re-joined him for this Ron classic]

17. No Help At All [after which he quipped that rehearsal is overrated]

18. Eye Candy [written after hearing girls in a bar talk about picking up men—‘not me, of course’]

19. Secret Heart

20. All In Good Time

21. Love Shines


22. Galbraith Street [about the street where he grew up, performed on his own]

23. Not About to Lose [band re-joined him here]

24. Every Time I Follow [some people will have missed this as it was 11pm and many of us were scared of missing our last trains…though I stayed, happily.]

It may well be that when I go to write my ‘real’ review, I’ll find when looking at my illegible scribble that I’ve reported something wrong or left out a song, but I believe the above is correct. It was an outstanding show, Ron was in really good voice, and his band was superb. Thank you Ron and Nurofen for the evening, which I will remember long after I endure bankruptcy, and will be happily humming Ron Sexsmith songs in my future cardboard box home on the street!

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Outstanding Elizabeth Taylor Dean

I wasn’t remotely interested in the Royal Wedding, and even less so because of all the ridiculous hype in the media beforehand, telling us how fascinated we were about who might have designed the dress and whether there had been a rehearsal. But I watched the event, and I watched it wearing jeans with my Grandmother’s pearls. I think she would have loved to have seen it, but tragically she died suddenly a few weeks earlier. I flew home to the States for her funeral—well, it was a Celebration of Her Life—and everyone kept asking me what I thought about The Wedding. America was much more thrilled about it than those of us who had to pay for it.

I remember that I was staying with my Grandmother in 1981 when she convinced me, then an apathetic teenager, that I should get up at five in the morning on my summer holidays to watch a television broadcast of a wedding of English people I didn’t know. She infused enthusiasm about its potential magic, saying seeing the heir to the British throne marry was a once-in-a-lifetime event, which in the end it wasn’t, particularly if you include his second wedding. But those words do pain me now, as I’m all too aware that what I see as her premature death meant that she missed this second-in-a-lifetime event on this scale, and I would have loved to have discussed it with her, as she would have enjoyed it—just as I had surprisingly ended up enjoying the Charles and Diana wedding, as she predicted. So I wore her necklace so that she could be with me as I watched this time, but of course it wasn’t as fun as if she had been delightfully, tangibly present.

I spoke a fortnight ago at the Celebration of Her Life, which was held at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, where she volunteered and was involved in many ways for much of her adult life. It was comforting to be holding it there, and kind of the Museum to let us do so. I wish that I had taken advantage of the chance to wander through the galleries of Wyeth paintings, which I had grown up around, even though they’ll never be the same without my Grandmother beside me enlightening me about each one. But I was too worried about the fact that I would be the second person to speak yet had not once read through what I’d just finished writing moments before we left for the service, and that it was trapped on my iPad and I was terrified of the technology going wrong as I read it from said gadget. (In the end, the only struggle was having to read it in small single-spaced font as there seemed no way to adjust that—oh, and the whole thing disappearing completely for a moment while I was speaking, but happily it returned).

The evening went beautifully, and there was an amazing turn out despite the terrific storms that night, which locally brought down huge trees that blocked bridges and which caused terrible damage further south. Particularly considering that many of the guests would have been what I once might have described as elderly—that’s a confusing term given my grandmother’s youthfulness up ‘til her death at 93—it was heart-warming.

I thought I’d reprint what I said here, perhaps foolishly as I keep my (neglected) blog private from those I know or see, who are the only people who have asked to read what I said, and I like to remain anonymous here but will use my Grandmother’s real name. Do bear in mind that I had to write it in a truly mad rush and was under pressure to cut out a lot of things I wish I’d included, as it was initially suggested no one should speak for more than three minutes, and I knew it would end up long. (Just as this has!) But I decided that it was my only time to pay tribute in that way to my Grandmother, and I was going to just do it, and I’m glad I did. I just wish I’d had time to read it over even once or preferably polish it, and hadn’t discarded some important thoughts in my haste.

My grandmother was absolutely amazing, quite a beautiful and lively character, and would do anything to bring fun into each day. I’m particularly gutted as I truly thought she’d be around at least another 10 years and rather hoped to see her soon, as if my expected redundancy is confirmed (possibly on 6 May), my first planned course of action was to take up her ongoing offer to fly me to see her, as I’d finally then have the time. I didn’t make it in time. You’ve no idea how horrific it was to fly there anyway, have the usual initial automatic feelings of joy fill me as the plane landed in Philadelphia, then travel to her house to stay there, but without her, and always to be without her. I still haven’t entirely faced up to this dreadful loss; I unhealthily look away instead.

I mustn't be morbid. She was an empress in my world and will never fully be out of it; she was too strong a presence. I will always adore her. I wish I’d said more at the service but I’m pleased I said something. I’m also glad I praised the marvellous Jamie Wyeth painting Portrait of a Pig (and wasn’t insulting his father Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of Helga; I was simply embarrassed as a child to see full frontal nudity), as the marvellous artist Jamie Wyeth himself very kindly attended the ceremony, which means a lot. Also, as the wonderful Museum allowed us to put up several of her paintings in the foyer by the gift shop for the service, she has finally been exhibited in her favourite museum! I strongly recommend that anyone in the Pennsylvania/Delaware area visits the Brandywine River Museum and its beautiful grounds by the river, and donate what you can to keep it going…’s on my list of future beneficiaries once I win the lottery (which really needs to happen soon!).

As my Grandmother did not want her obituary to include a photograph, perhaps because like all of us, she did not see herself as the craggy face with pale hair that we all become, I’ve simply--for now--included here a photo of her from her first wedding in 1938 (tragically, she was widowed a few years later when my Grandfather was killed in a submarine in World War II).

But it isn’t really who I think of when I see Libby Dean, because it’s monochrome. My grandmother was always in full, blazing colour. Nothing garish, always pleasant. She was teals and turquoise, with bright pink lipstick and perfectly matching accessories. When I saw her, I saw beauty, not age. We tend to look at elderly people and just see the ‘old’, not the individual. She never failed to be an individual, and perhaps that, and the bright colourful character that matched the bright, colourful outfits, is what left me in shock that she could die, and so suddenly.

It somehow had not really occurred to me that that was on the cards, even though I lost my much younger father totally unexpectedly a few years ago. I thought they both were invincible. And it was my Grandmother who so understood my close bond with—and consequential true devastation at the loss of—my father, and kept getting in touch to see how I was coping as she knew it was particularly hard for me. She did much the same when I lost my precious cat and buddy of 20 years; she understood how much he had meant to me, as she had also had close furry companions throughout her life. Hence her dread that she was going to lose her aging, beloved spaniel Zack, who was in ill health. We were relieved that she did not have to face that, but a sad note is that right after Zack attended our gathering to spread her ashes on a delightfully sunny day, he weakened and did not pull through, bless him. Maybe they were holding on for each other and are together again now.

I suppose my words will mean little to those of you who didn’t have the joy of knowing this marvellous creature, my Grandmother, and I’ve gone on so long, I doubt anyone is still reading. But I guess this is cathartic. Here’s what I said at the Celebration of her Life on 16 April:-


The other week, the actress Elizabeth Taylor died. Now, devastatingly, another Elizabeth Taylor has died, my Grandmother, Elizabeth Taylor Dean. They were both icons, but my grandmother was the Original; she never failed to point out that she was Elizabeth Taylor first, and I think she might get some satisfaction from being Elizabeth Taylor last as well. Whilst Grandmommy was the fair age of 93, I was convinced she would live to be 100, so her death is more of a shock than you would expect. I'd hoped to visit again shortly, and it's been difficult to travel here and find myself gripped with the usual excitement I get coming to this area in anticipation of spending time with this extraordinary character, as she was a joy to be around, and a marvellous companion who found pleasure in little things, and livened up anything dull with a cute way of describing it, always learning, always laughing. She would find fun for us, and every excursion was a joy. It seems inconceivable that she is gone, but her character still permeates so many of these places, particularly here at the Museum.

I've been astonished by the number of terrific thoughts of her that have burst into my head over the past few days, and I hope you'll forgive me if I meander through some of these memories now....

Libby Dean was a pioneer of several trends that have now become quite common place, such as recycling, bedazzling, and pimping one's ride. If you perhaps wouldn't naturally associate such things with my Grandmother, I'll elaborate.

First, I can tell by looking around the room that many of you watched the MTV programme 'Pimp My Ride', a sort of 'extreme makeover - car edition', where someone's car is customised with unlikely luxuries like a bowling ball spinner or a gold jacuzzi. Libby Dean started a similar practice long ago, as she wouldn't take delivery of a new car without first having custom stripes--very tastefully--painted down the sides of the car, complete with her initials. Yes, a monogrammed car. And rather than a common Coke can holder by the driver's seat, she had a place for a crystal tumbler, as she would never drive to dinner without a glass of vodka by her side. Well, it was the cocktail hour, after all. And amazingly, she was never done for drink driving; it was eating a taco that proved to be her undoing in an accident, but that's another story. Certainly, her driving did tend to leave her passengers terrified for their lives, but that was more down to the fact that she seemed to think that you were meant to centre the car over the line that divided the lanes. Fortunately, she had an angel on her shoulder; that's the only explanation for the safety of her passengers over the years, and the fact that she came out of two car accidents very late in life without serious injury. I like to think that she'll now be someone else's guardian angel, which would perfectly suit her giving nature.

Next, I mentioned 'bedazzling', or even starting the 'extreme makeover--home edition' trend. None of us could have an ordinary lunchbox, coaster, glasses case or even kitchen cupboard handle--such things were too plain for her world. Grandmommy would affix appliqués or paint them until they were unique, adding a special, magical Libby touch. You've seen the impressive quality of her paintings; imagine that on your sweatshirt. With my debutante ball and wedding approaching, I passed to her my insignificant, dull white shoes, and they came back to me covered lavishly in pearls, sequins and lace, something that Cinderella's fairy godmother would envy. If she had worked for a designer, she would have made a fortune, but she was just interested in making the world a prettier place, and she certainly had a flair for it. She was also very practical and could fix anything, so when my deb dress was ripped moments before the ball started, and when my bridesmaid dress was too large and in danger of falling off, she whipped out a needle and thread and made everything better in minutes.

Finally, long before it was trendy to be 'green' she was a champion recycler. At every Christmas, she'd stand over us saying, 'That's lovely paper--save that!' so we'd unwrap the gift delicately and hand her the wrap, and indeed the next year, our presents were wrapped in very lovely, but very wrinkled, gift wrap.

But her recycling didn't end there. Rather than tuck away any unwanted gifts, she would attempt to find them a loving home elsewhere, sort of like an SPCA rehoming/rescue centre for gifts. Though she could really have done with a database, as one year the gift she sent me was one I had sent her a year before. But I'm all for recycling, and it's the thought that counts, and she was always thoughtful.

She was also stylish, beautifully presented in bright colours, and a sight to behold. I remember one of her old friends telling me years ago that even if she were wearing a fuchsia outfit, she would even ensure that her contact lenses matched.

Another memorable trait was my grandmother's patience and tolerance, whether it was offering encouraging words when I presented her with toads that I had rescued from her swimming pool, or coping quietly when my brother and I confused the strict instructions about avoiding her expensive, unripe crop of green beans, rather than picking every one of them. She was great at allowing me to explore her old barn and enjoy the ancient books and Barbie dolls I found there, and didn't bat an eyelid when I gave the life-sized doll Harriet, who stayed at her house, a haircut that looked like she'd been hit by some nuclear catastrophe and made her prime fodder for a horror film. She just bought Harriet a wig, and I always wondered if she'd taken Harriet to the store with her to get the proper fit.

Years later, I tried that remarkable patience considerably, when she arranged for the grandson of some friends to take me to the Bachelor's Ball at the Hotel DuPont. But only after he took me first to his parents' house for cocktails, before getting to the Ball and having champagne, then starting on other drinks with no sign of food, did I realise that it was probably not such a good idea to have starved myself for two days beforehand. The next thing I knew, the ladies' room at the Hotel DuPont had to be evacuated of all the women so that the perfectly nice, respectable date that my grandmother had arranged could come into the ladies' room and pick me up off the floor, then presumably sling me over his shoulder--I have no memory of this--before carrying me out through the ballroom past many guests who my Grandmother would have known, through the Hotel DuPont before getting me home, where I promptly 'fell asleep' on the floor. When I woke, rather worse for wear, I was terrified about what my grandmother would say. In the end, she just gave me a slight roll of the eye, a single quick shake of the head, and then she took me to the theatre.

In doing so, she stood by my side as I faced up to my shame, since the performance was the same weekend and also at the Hotel DuPont. She was largely responsible for my adoration of the theatre. I've seen many outstanding legends performing on stage in London, but what I always look back at with the most pride are two productions my grandmother took me to see: Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and Yul Brynner in The King and I. Not the original stagings, I hasten to add, but fun ones by her side.

She achieved some fame in her own right, and I know she was proud that her creation with Anne Scarlett of the 'critters, angels and stars’, which adorned the Christmas trees at the museum here for years, also appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, when she and other volunteers decorated the Reagans' Christmas tree in the White House, about which she was also interviewed on CBS morning television by Maria Shriver, now Mrs Schwarzenegger, which we watched with pride. She had a critter factory in her old home, a workshop filled year-round with drying teasels and cake tins full of silica gel. The reckless drives with her often involved stopping suddenly on the highway and pulling over because she'd seen just the right bit of Queen Anne's Lace, and she'd cut it and put it in a the tin of silica gel she kept in the trunk. During our many trips to Longwood Gardens, if I pointed out some pretty Celosia, she'd mumble that it would make an excellent Santa hat. I'm pleased that that legacy lives on, in the many Christmas decorations I'll hang on my tree each year, and in the book, Critters Angels and Stars, which I believe the Museum still sells.

It's hard to be at the Museum without her; our time here was such a huge part of my childhood. I always felt, when she brought me through the employees' entrance and was greeted by everyone we passed, that we were coming through some secret VIP entrance. She knew that I loved Jamie Wyeth's Pig and was embarrassed by Helga's nudity, but always shared her enormous knowledge with such thorough and fascinating background that it rooted my lifelong love of art. Last time I was here, we toured the NC Wyeth studio and house, and she taught the guide a few things, particularly as she had studied under Carolyn Wyeth. I also witnessed her discreetly teaching a guide at Winterthur some things he'd got wrong. That was the time she climbed into a giant bird's nest there so I could photograph her, the same way a grandparent would indulge a toddler. Not long after that, I tested her astonishing patience by keeping her waiting for an age at the Winterthur gift shop, with her uttering no complaints as I made her stop the car repeatedly when we finally left with claims that I was excited to see Canada Geese, or a pretty tree, and must take a closer look. Although she was quite a force to be reckoned with, her love for her grandchildren must be what kept her from hitting me. Little did she know that I had been instructed to keep her out of the house while my mother and aunt planned a surprise birthday party, and I really hope she forgave me.

She certainly thanked me for my gift, and her voice still chides me in my mind every time I procrastinate sending what she taught us was a crucially important thank you note. There's an old copy of Emily Post's book of Etiquette in her house, and I half expected there to be an inscription from the author thanking my Grandmother for ghost-writing it for her. She certainly was an expert on the right thing to do and always kept her family in line.

Indeed, she was absolutely the matriarch, and now our family feels a bit like it's floundering around aimlessly without its centre, its foundation crumbled. I've no idea how we'll manage, but I expect we'll apply the strength we inherited from her and learn to stand strong and weather this and any other storm that comes our way.

We have to look for small mercies here, to take some comfort for ourselves. I'm grateful that she was with a friend when she collapsed, as she always appreciated her many dear friends. I am glad that she achieved so many things she wanted, even making it to the Chelsea Flower Show in London some years ago; producing some gorgeous art; and was surrounded by brilliant friends and family, including always at least one furry friend by her side who meant the world to her. We can take comfort from the fact that her fears of losing her beloved companion Zack, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel, did not materialise. And I am just thankful that we were so blessed as to be touched by such an amazing life, and I am so proud to be part of this family that was built on her strong foundation. I take comfort in the fact that, although we are devastated by the void she has left, she is perhaps now in a better place, brightening up Heaven in the same way that everyone here brightened when they first had the joy of meeting this extraordinary woman. Her new peaceful community that I like to imagine welcoming her includes her beloved son Terry, many precious friends including several Golden Retrievers, and not one but two husbands. I'm not really sure how that works in Heaven, but if anyone could pull it off without acrimony, it's her.

So we are left here with this enormous void, and it seems that a great deal of warmth has just leaked from the universe, and I am frozen, and numb. But her tremendous presence is very much here and will always be felt, and part of her soul is hanging beside the impressive paintings in this museum, in the flowers in the fields--particularly Queen's Anne's Lace and even prickly teasels, which rather match her as she pulled off faux grumpy quite well. Such a robust, feisty, special charming character doesn't simply ebb away. I'm sure you'll find something in your life that will make you think of Libby--perhaps it's a fond memory, a flower, a scent on the breeze--her spirit somehow flitting past you. Smile when that happens; it's what she would want. I've no doubt we'll all somehow benefit from the presence of the redoubtable Libby Dean for many years to come.