Monday, 9 April 2012

The Fabergé Big Egg Hunt

A few weeks ago, en route to an interview, I came across a giant egg sitting on a base outside the National Gallery.  I obviously couldn’t be late for my interview, but it would have killed me to run past without pausing to inspect it. So I took a quick photo of the first egg I saw in the Fabergé Big Egg Hunt before I was entirely aware of it.  Not long afterwards, that egg was sadly stolen. The egg in question was Our Team by Charlie’s Cartoons, covered in athletes and thus very 2012 with a nod to the Olympics.  Later, I noticed a green one nearby with a small clock in it, called Cuckoo, and my interest was piqued.
I remember the magic a few years ago of wandering around London photographing elephants, which is not something I would have expected to say or do.  The elephants in question were decorated by artists for the charity The Elephant Family  (which aims to turn around the fate of the Asian elephants, which face extinction after 90% have disappeared over the past century,  by creating crucial projects in their native countries and by raising awareness).  The Egg Hunt raises money for that charity and Action for Children, which supports around 50k of the UK’s most vulnerable and neglected young people. 

Basically, the Big Egg Hunt, presented by  Fabergé, had 210 differently and creatively decorated egg sculptures that were 2.5 feet high scattered in late February around London in 12 Egg Zones, such as The City, the South Bank and  the Docklands.  People were encouraged to hunt for them and tick them off a list in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most people participating in an Egg Hunt.  The project aims to raise over £2 million for the above charities.  

Each egg sculpture had a coded number on its plinth, and egg hunters were encouraged to text that (each text being a £3 donation) to enter a contest to win a golden Fabergé Diamond Jubilee Egg valued at about £100,000.  Also, all eggs are being auctioned off.  Some have already been sold, but most auctions end at 6pm on Easter Monday.  They generally seem to be going for about £1500 each, with some more popular ones, such as Odele Kidd’s gorgeous Polar Bear Ballet, which I sadly never saw in person, going for £20,000.  The bidding for one egg that is yet to be painted—the Chapman Brothers will paint the winning bidder’s portrait as Humpty Dumpty on an egg—is at £25,000.  It’s great news for all the artists, for the people who get these fantastic sculptures, and for the charities. 
I stumbled upon several eggs a few days after seeing my first, when walking through the royal parks, and then made a point of walking around the deserted City on a Saturday to snap several neat eggs there, and was interested to see several other people doing the egg hunt, even in that deserted part of town.  I intended to go out to do other Zones later when I learned that those eggs had been moved to Covent Garden, for an Egg-stravaganza.  All the remaining eggs were lined up in different parts of the Piazza, hung from the ceilings or dotted around the Market Building, or hidden in store windows.  People dressed (sort of) in bunny outfits were collecting donations and selling Big Egg Hunt books for a donation of £2.50, which listed all the eggs and enabled people to tick them off when they found each one, and then get a certificate when they found them all.
Such things are so important—not just for the charitable cause, which is crucial, but for the delight that it brings to so many people. Part of being a Londoner is enjoying the unexpected, coming across surprising sights every day.  Or being able to go out looking for them when you know they are there. And the sheer number of parents with their kids who had clearly made it a day out to mark off all the eggs even when they were all together in Covent Garden was  proof enough of the joy the project brought to so many. 
There were furry ones, beautifully coloured ones, one made of pennies, one that reacted to warmth to retain people’s handprints, ones with animals, ones making a statement, one with Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey character painted on it, ones with legs, mosaic ones, one that looks like the Gherkin (which wasn’t the one in front of the Gherkin), metal sculpted ones including a bird cage, a Mr Potato Head one, ones you could look into, and ones that deserved to be in the Tate or National Gallery.  There was also a Where’s Wally egg (Where’s Waldo to us Americans) that was moved regularly, so it was harder to spot.

I simply smile when the various eggs come up in the slideshow screensaver on my PC, giving me the chance to inspect and enjoy so many of them more than I had before.  And I’m so pleased that the bidding for them has been so successful. There’s still a tiny bit of time left if anyone wants one of these gorgeous or fascinating big eggs in their home or garden. It beats an old Athena print or a garden gnome!  In any case, I urge you to visit the site to view the many varied, incredible eggs, read a bit about what motivated each artist, and donate to the cause if you can.  You can even buy miniature versions of some of the eggs or other gifts at the Egg Shop in Covent Garden or Selfridges.
Thank you, Big Egg Hunt coordinators, sponsors and artists—plus those in London who allowed it to happen.  This has been wonderful.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Talking Zoffany Sheaths as A Helicopter Lands in Trafalgar Square

The worrying news this morning that the Air Ambulance had to attend an accident on the M26 reminded me that, the other day, my plans to walk across busy Trafalgar Square were diverted by a helicopter landing in my path.

After a nearby job interview, I was drawn into St James's Park, where there are vast clusters of daffodils and cherry trees laden with early blossom in this freakishly gorgeous sunny time. I sat on a bench enjoying the peace of the stunning birdsong, but was chided by pigeons and waterfowl for not thinking to bring them food, unlike all the tourists whose snaps of their trip to London will feature grey squirrels taking treats from their hands, apparently one of London’s star attractions. I’m happy for the animals, though I was not surprised to see a rat scurrying in the reeds near the water. (I tried to convince myself that it was a water vole, which I’ve been trying to catch a glimpse of at the London Wetlands Centre for yonks, but it wasn’t Ratty; it was a rat.)

The chill moved me to decide to kill time until a lecture by viewing impressionist paintings in the National Gallery, which is fabulously free so you can dip in rather than exhausting yourself with the overwhelmingly large collection. I had just walked past the lions in Trafalgar Square and was about to manoeuvre my way through all the tourists when I heard a helicopter. This is such a frequent (and very noisy) occurrence in Central London now, I’ve almost stopped looking up, but this one caught my eye as it was bright red and hovering directly over the now empty Canada House on the west side of the Square. I was pretty sure that the only red helicopter was the London Air Ambulance and soon, like a normal ambulance, it sounded a siren—more of an alarm really, which I’ve never heard from a helicopter. It was rather surreal.

It seemed so inconceivable that something high in the sky should be sending a message down to us, like an alien spaceship indicating that it was coming in to land. Or maybe I’m alone in finding this surprising, the way seeing a lone plane in the dark sky with headlights lighting its way makes me smile, as though it needs to see where the road curves and avoid badgers and oncoming traffic.

So it took me and apparently the many others in the Square a few moments to twig that the helicopter was actually planning to land there, in Trafalgar Square, which was full of people, never mind the fountains, statues and the ginormous pointy thing that is Nelson’s Column. I’ve seen the Air Ambulance land in a road junction by my home in Greater London, but I’ve never heard of it landing in Trafalgar Square (though there’s no requirement to notify me). But when you think of it, if they needed to get an A&E doctor to a patient immediately in Central London, where else might they land? Nearby squares have trees, benches, statues and probably closer power lines.

Indeed, having sounded the warning alarm, the helicopter started descending toward us, and faced with the prospect of 3 tonnes of metal attached to a spinning chopping blade being lowered onto our heads, we had the sense to move. There were no single stupid people who you sometimes see lingering in such situations thinking it might be funny to be non-conformist, and we left plenty of room.

Many of us raised our cameras and phones to photo-graph the sight of a helicopter landing in front of us. I was aware that helicopters stirred up a lot of dust so I prepared to squint, but I was completely unprepared for the solid wall of filth that whacked us hard in the face and coated every strand of my hair. So we dropped our initially outstretched camera-holding arms, ducked and sought cover behind statues or construction sheeting nearby. When it seemed safe to look up again, there was indeed a bright red helicopter parked in front of us, on a little circle in the square that I never particularly noticed before. It is probably not coincidence that it was a perfect landing target for the helicopter—not that that made it easy; the skill of the pilots is amazing.

By the time I cleared enough grit out of my eyes to open them fully, the flying doctor and paramedic had already slipped out of the helicopter and out of sight. Several people wearing high visibility jackets marked “Heritage Advisor” appeared, people who I’ve never noticed but are presumably always in the Square advising tourists about heritage, with another duty being seeing to any sudden helicopter landings in the Square. They whipped out something like police tape and tried fairly unsuccessfully to tie it to fountains and any other anchor they could find.

They were perfectly genial people who didn’t need to move us back--we had all been cleared by the flying filth--but I suppose they were concerned about hundreds of tourists rushing to photograph each other smiling in front of the helicopter, getting in the way when it tried to take off, or climbing onto it whilst parked and dangling from its main rotor. (I say ‘main rotor’, but the MD902 Explorer twin engine helicopter has only one and no tail rotor, which is apparently better in an urban environment--less chance of chopping up people, perhaps.) This was a medical emergency, after all.

In fact, that was my primary thought—that it was awful that someone must be seriously hurt nearby. One of the Heritage Advisors trying to tie tape to us said there was an incident at Leicester Square, possibly in the Tube, which made me think the medics had disappeared so quickly because they were taken there by a London Ambulance vehicle or motorcycle, as that would otherwise be a fair run with all their heavy gear when they’d need to be fresh enough to save someone’s life on arrival (although I know they often do exactly that).

A fellow spectator on what I gather was a trendy bike with low wheels appeared beside me, saying he had assumed it was some sort of stunt since the helicopter had ‘Virgin’ emblazoned across it (and Richard Branson is rather stunt mad), but I explained that Virgin was a sponsor of the Air Ambulance, which is a charity. The charity operates London’s only Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS), which depends on public donations and which I gather is currently principally financed through Santander Corporate Banking with the support of Virgin. The service has been operating for 24 years, providing “pre-hospital care to victims of serious injury throughout London”, according to its website, carrying “a Senior Trauma Doctor and a specially trained Paramedic, essentially bringing the hospital to the patient. In serious cases the patient may not always be able survive the distance to hospital so operations need to be performed on scene.”

Based on top of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, they have just moved to a new helipad on the refurbished building, now as high up as the Big Ben clock tower. The helicopter can reach anywhere within the M25 in 12 minutes, and since the service was founded, trauma deaths in London and on the M25 are said to have fallen by more than 50%. Since 6 March, the helicopter has even been carrying emergency blood supplies so transfusions can be administered at the scene of an accident.

I know about the Air Ambulance because I recall watching a BBC3 series some years ago called Trauma, where a camera crew followed the team to emergencies in the helicopter during the day and in the rapid response cars at night or when the helicopter was being repaired. It was gripping stuff. I watched the doctors anesthetise a patient and slice open his throat at a London road junction as police officers held a make-shift curtain around them to shield them from the gawping crowd, and perform roadside thoracotomies (open chest surgery) usually performed by a cardiothoracic surgeon in an operating theatre. Can you imagine the pressure on the lone HEMS doctor out on the road? Ably assisted by a remarkable paramedic, of course, but it’s not the same as a full medical team of specialists in a safe and sterilised environment.

I also watched the show as an injured motorcyclist began fighting off the people who were trying to save him, which I came to learn as a danger sign that the patient had suffered brain damage, which is when people retreat to such basic bestial behaviour. I watched, irritated with injured children in fairly inaccessible fields who refused to board the air ambulance that was their quickest and safest route to hospital, simply because they were frightened of flying. So they would have to travel by land ambulance, as the last thing the helicopter crew wanted in a confined space in the air was someone hysterical fighting them.

I also watched through my fingers as a very young but otherwise fanciable doctor comforted someone who had been initially unsuccessful in his suicide leap in front of a tube train and was frightfully injured but caught under the train so the HEMS doctor had to crawl under it as the fire service tried to lift it a bit so he could assess the patient and administer desperately needed pain relief. I seem to recall that he chatted to his patient while enormous numbers of emergency services workers spent ages either trying to free him or waiting to help him, but sadly the man died where he fell. Yet the doctor would have to get up from that and continue to respond to other calls that needed him.

Remembering that incident sent a chill down my spine as I noticed two men clad in red, looking like astronauts who had landed way off course as in that Specsavers advert, eventually return to the helicopter from the east side of the Square, watched by several motorcycle paramedics who presumably had brought them back from Leicester Square. They had no patient on a stretcher with them, and I worried that it had been an awful situation like that one I’d seen on Trauma. I said to the man beside me that perhaps the lack of patient meant he or she wasn’t as badly injured as originally thought, that they recovered or were fine to go in a normal ambulance, and I hoped more than believed that to be true. (The service tweeted afterwards to say that they don’t always carry a patient, that the Air Ambulance is just used to get the medical expertise to the patient quickly. I will focus on that being the case. You can follow them on Twitter here: @TheHelilpad .)
We watched as the pilot opened the boot of the helicopter and shoved in some gear, the same way we mere mortals do with a car. They donned their white crash helmets (would they help if the three-tonne hunk of metal dropped from the sky? Or is it to battle the rotor blades if their proximity were miscalculated?), and one stepped away from the helicopter to assess the situation as someone might guide a car driver who was parallel parking, saying “You’re clear on this side.” That seemed reasonable until I realised that he could hardly join them after they took off, leaping into the air and grabbing the landing skids like Superman or a Bond villain. He managed to join them just before lift off.
I warned the cyclist standing by me to protect himself, given the incredible shock of filth that the helicopter had dumped on us on its way down, but it seemed that that first episode had tidied up Trafalgar Square to such a degree that very little dirt was left to be dislodged by the rotor blades spinning this time. (I think most of it was in my hair). The rotor revved up quickly, and as soon as the helicopter began to lift off, it seemed to dart to a great height in an instant. “It’s like a Harrier Jump Jet,” I stupidly remarked to the Stranger Cyclist, and he agreed. And then it was off, the Heritage Advisors removed the tape that had pretty much blown away and they disappeared, and Trafalgar Square went back to normal. People passing just afterwards had no idea what they'd missed.

I was accustomed, thanks to the television series, to seeing the remarkable work of these medics, and here
was an example of the tremendous skill of the pilots, too. The service will apparently be featured in another television show in June called Real Rescue, presented by former BBC Breakfast sports presenter and Strictly Come Dancing winner Chris Hollins. Make sure you watch it, as if this show is even a patch on Trauma, we viewers will be lucky. I feel the programme did a lot to promote the incredible emergency services as well as the Royal London and A&E departments generally (as Helicopter Heroes also now promotes other air ambulance services). Another fly-on-the-wall programme featuring the London Air Ambulance called Medic One can still be seen on YouTube, and it’s worth having a look. And if you can, perhaps donate even a small something to this amazing service that saves lives daily.

It had been interesting watching everyone’s reaction to the sudden appearance of this bright red bird in a space previously ruled by pigeons, and there are many better photographs than mine on the Internet, as obviously many tourists and, judging by the kit they were carrying, some professional photographers moved around the Square to get the best angle. I only had a little camera I keep in my handbag that is marginally better than the appalling camera on my phone, and I stayed put and chatted to Stranger Cyclist, who reminded me of several cultured people I knew.

Perhaps I’d mentioned that I’d been heading for the National Gallery, which led to talk of the Royal Academy exhibitions, and I mentioned how I’d been lucky to see the superb David Hockney exhibition when a company kindly gave me a free pass after a job interview with them. He mused about whether it was some sort of assessment centre exercise, and whether they quizzed me on my favourite paintings afterwards. They didn’t, but it did start me wondering about whether the pass had some GPS monitor so they could note down which paintings I spent more time in front of, and then judge me in the same way they might evaluate my handwriting or the answers to a ridiculous psychometric test (I used to like those, but the last one I took—given by my former employer—had questions such as “Chose which of the following best describes you: (a) you have red hair, (b) your favourite colour is red, or (c) you always see red.” So I had little faith in its ultimate judgement.)

Stranger Cyclist asked if I’d seen the RA’s Johan Zoffany exhibit, which I haven’t, but which was recommended by a friend who, like Stranger Cyclist, had recently retired. Stranger Cyclist (which I accidentally just typed as ‘’Strangler Cyclist” but he seemed safe) described to me The Tribuna of the Uffizi , which amazingly includes a reproduction of over a dozen works at the Uffizi museum in Florence, which I feel I’ve seen—perhaps at Windsor? (It took me years to learn there is a breath-taking collection of works by all the greats at Windsor Castle.)

Stranger Cyclist also referred to a self-portrait in the exhibition that showed some condoms hanging in the background as Zoffany prepared for a fancy dress ball. (I note that the Times Literary Supplement classics editor, Mary Beard, as a result of seeing this painting posed the question “How many condoms did Zoffany paint?”  Who would have thought the controversy now was about quantity?)

I later mentioned in an email to my newly retired friend that the exhibition had also been recommended by another person who had seemed to be a sensible intellectual type, despite being a stranger I’d met in Trafalgar Square who mentioned condoms. Said friend made me laugh when he replied that he was “relieved to hear that at last you are talking to strange men in Trafalgar Square about condoms. You really should have done this earlier.”

I only do so on occasions when bright red helicopters land at my feet in famous London landmarks. And then, always. Until next time….