A life – This is the eleventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs
When I was eleven I went to spend several weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandmother. I travelled down from Yorkshire on the Flying Scotsman, ate my egg sandwiches for lunch, taking them out of their grease-proof paper wrapping and brown paper bag, and felt thirsty with no drink.
I sat and worried the whole journey about how I was going to get my suitcase down from the luggage rack when we arrived at King’s Cross. There, the thundering, hissing steam engines and the noise of all the milling crowds of people were overwhelming, and then it was out into the heat and traffic. London seemed like hell at first, but I grew to love it.
I loved waking in the morning and seeing the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the heavy, floor -length, apple- green velvet curtains. Outside, veiling the view of the street, was the thick screen of plane trees, pollarded every year, but now in high summer, green and leafy. I listened to the clop of the horse’s hooves as the milk man jingled down the road at 6.30 in the morning, and felt a great sense of well- being.
As long as I was polite and well-mannered and helped with the chores, no-one ever got cross here, and it was so easy to be good. My stepmother’s parents were in this sense, perfect grandparents – uncritical.
Every morning at about eleven, my step-grandfather arrived to take me for an expedition. They were glorious. London in 1949 was a still a blackened, blitzed city… black from the coal fires of the industrial revolution, blitzed from the bombs of the Luftwaffe… so among the blackened sooty edifices of the city, there were still deep bomb craters filled with rubble and pink rose bay willow growing on these derelict monuments to World War Two – Wren’s precious, now ruined churches, elegant, destroyed townhouses, fashionable shops, and humble homes…
Uncle Bill walked me all over this London, telling me the names of the streets, and the history of all the places, and the names and stories of the heroes and soldiers, statesmen and artists commemorated in all the statues. We strode down Constitution Hill, past the Palace, No I, London, also known as Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s London home- through the parks, Admiralty Arch, Whitehall, where King Charles I was executed, Westminster, along the Embankment, into the City.
Other days he took me to the Abbey, the Tower, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, and on the river bus to Greenwich, or the other way to Kew. He opened my eyes to the layers of history and beauty of this ancient city, centuries of life and death, trade and plague, culture and violence …we walked up streets with fascinating medieval names like Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England, where a detachment of Guards, he told me, have marched to guard it nearly every day since the Gordon Riots in 1780; we discovered the corner of Cock Lane, once known as Pie Corner, where the Great Fire of London ended, having started in Pudding Lane… we marvelled at St Paul’s, which Sir Christopher Wren had built to replace the old Gothic Cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire…
We meandered through Georgian London with its elegant Nash facades and lingered outside Rules famous restaurant opened by Thomas Rule in 1798, round the corner from Covent Garden, and favourite meeting place for artistic life from Dickens and Thackeray, to Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable; Edwardian London we acknowledged at Admiralty Arch, built by Edward the Seventh to honour his mother, Queen Victoria… Victorian London, and the statue of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace… Elizabethan London, where Good Queen Bess had ridden as a girl beneath the ancient oaks in Greenwich Park, and where Charles II’s wonderful Hospital for Seamen, Wren’s glorious masterpiece, still stands as a monument to public charity and architectural beauty. When we saw it, it had become the Naval College where we admired the famous Painted Hall and I gazed with ghoulish interest at the brown blood- stains on the cotton vest worn by Nelson when he died on the decks of the Victory.
Norman London meant Westminster Hall, William the Conqueror’s masterpiece, with its unique 240 feet hammer – beam ceiling, as well as his menacing Tower of London, where I listened to the story of the death of the Little Princes in the White Tower several hundred years later, as told by a Beefeater guide, and recalled the cruel executions of sad seventeen -year- old Lady Jane Grey, and tragic Anne Boleyn before her, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh.
To the Abbey, all the poets in their corner, and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, memorial to the dead of what my other grandmother called The Great War…and where it is said the ghost of John Bradshaw who signed Charles 1’s death warrant, is sometimes seen – then across the way, to magnificent Boadicea in her chariot by the river, Queen of the Iceni before the Romans settled the city as Londinium… many believe that she’s buried at Kings Cross under Platform 10! I had learned about this legendary woman from my history teacher when I was eight, and she fascinated me…
Writer Anna Quindlen wrote: ‘London… is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, door, passage, door. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.’ And that was how it felt. At Trafalgar Square I was moved by beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell’s memorial from the First World War, while in Piccadilly, Uncle Bill told me of stepping over fire hoses from the previous night’s bombing in World War Two, then in Downing Street he pointed out the window from which Chamberlain had waved to the crowds after bringing back ‘peace in our time’ from Munich.
And the best days of all, were when he took me to the National Gallery and the Tate. I had already read, re-read and read again, umpteen times, a book belonging to my parents called ‘The Outline of Art’ by Sir William Orpen. It was probably printed during the war because the only colour illustration was a picture of his own, a particularly hideous painting of a butcher’s shop in all its bloody detail. For the rest, every glorious picture was in black and white, so I imagined what the colours were. It was a dreadful disappointment when I first saw Rossetti’s ‘The Beloved’ in colour, and discovered the Beloved was wearing emerald green, instead of the madonna blue I had visualised her in.
And so it was too with Christina Rossetti in ‘The Annunciation’. The pictures and the painters I learned to love in this black and grey world, have remained my favourites ever since, which is a chastening thought that having formed my taste at eleven it has never developed since.
But I still love the dignity and gentleness of Fra Angelica, and the sheer beauty of Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. I still dislike Mona Lisa and love Beatrice d’Este. Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on The Rocks ‘ still takes my breathe away, and his angels and cartoons ravished me then and now. I loved, and still love, Holbein and Van Eyck, and the wonderful line and delicacy of Durer. Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch still feed some pool of serenity deep inside me. Rembrandt, alas, didn’t re-produce well in black and white, but I took Orpen’s word for him, and he was right.
And, oh, the glory of Gainsborough, from Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews sitting beneath the tree in their ripe cornfield, to the society beauties and ravishing children he painted later. Constable didn’t show up very well in black and white either, so I came to love him later.
The Pre-Raphaelites are all the rage now, but I loved them back in ’49, especially Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Lord Leighton, and also Picasso in his blue period. And Hoppner and Romney. Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Samuel’, I loved because my grandmother had told me his story… “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth”… Samuel Palmer didn’t seem to be in ‘The Outline of Art’ – perhaps he didn’t reproduce well in black and white either. But I fell in love with him on our return from Malaya.
At the first opportunity I had hot-footed it down to the Tate, passing through the Turners, which never appealed to me (p’raps the black and white had killed him for me!) and found in a corner by the door, an exquisite little painting of people coming from church, and a golden moon shining down on them. Samuel Palmer. That picture, and he, caught my heart, and I still have the postcard I bought then, in its battered little gold frame, and I still love his golden cornfields and fat sheep and the mystical light of his other paintings
So I was ripe for my first visit to the National Gallery. At the end of a long exciting afternoon, Uncle Bill asked which picture had been my favourite. I panicked. I was still mortified from the mockery of the reading I had done before I met my parents – and I didn’t know him well enough, or trust him enough not to laugh at me for being religious. So I lied, and said Perroneau’s ‘Girl with a Kitten’, and van Gogh’s ‘ Chair ‘. And so I was punished for my lie, because he bought me copies of them both, instead of my favourite picture, da Vinci’s sublime ‘Virgin on the Rocks’.
The picture is, of course, Perroneau’s ‘A girl with a kitten’
To be continued… The Edwardians
Food for threadbare gourmets
Courgettes/zucchini are one of my favourite vegetables, sliced in long thin ribbons or sliced across in penny shaped pieces, and cooked I olive oil and garlic, they are delectable… grated and stirred into a risotto, with lemon zest added, they’re delicious; courgette and feta fritters and courgette slice, using either chopped bacon or a tin of salmon, make a lovely lunch, and I use them in ratatouille, instead of aubergines – which are anathema to me (though I do buy them just to enjoy their purple beauty in a bowl of fruit and vegetables).This courgette loaf is a fragrant way to enjoy courgettes with a cup of coffee in the morning, or with a cup of tea in the afternoon.
In a bowl, beat three medium sized courgettes, 150 gm of sugar, one egg andn125ml of light olive oil. In a separate bowl, sift together 200 gm of SR flour, half a teasp of salt, quarter teasp of baking soda, a teasp of cinnamon and two teasp lemon zest. Stir the flour mixture into the courgette mixture just until blended. Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin and bake for forty- five minutes, at 160C or gas mark 3. When cool I like a layer of lemon icing spread over it.
Food for thought
We manufacture everything ( in our manufacturing cities) except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.
John Ruskin. Victorian write, art critic, philosopher