War and Peace and Giving Thanks

You can get £12 tickets to shows at the National Theatre on the day of performance. They start selling at 9:30 in the morning, so you have to get there first thing and line up. So I got up early on Saturday and headed to town and got a ticket for the matinee of “The Kitchen” by Arnold Wesker.

Ticket in hand, I had a lot of time before the show. I decided I would head over to the Imperial War Museum, a 15-minute walk from the National Theatre. But as soon as I stepped out of the theatre, I was approached by a couple of earnest young men asking me if I would take part in the Aviva Insurance “You are the Big Picture” campaign.

I am a fan of Aviva. They sponsor the National Theatre Live broadcasts that have allowed me to see great NT performances while in Ottawa. For “You Are the Big Picture”, Aviva is photographing thousands of people and for every picture they use they are donating £2 to Save the Children. I was asked if I wanted to take part. Aviva had set up a tent outside the theatre, and everything would take place right there. A makeup artist would “Just give me a little Jeuge” (have no idea how to spell this but everyone said it – keep the g soft when you say it), and a “world famous photographer” would take my picture. I would be given an 8 x 10 glossy – all free of charge. Well I said yes, of course!

The Aviva tent outside the National Theatre. My 15 seconds of celebrity.

Inside the tent, all shapes and sizes of people were getting “jeugged” and treated like celebrities. We told that our pictures would be projected on the wall of the National Theatre that night. Appropriately “jeugged”, I went into the photo shoot, had a bit of chit chat (click, click), smiled affably (click, click), was told I was very photographic (click, click) and thanked. My photo is being sent to me in the mail.

My 15 seconds of fame being over, I headed to the Imperial War Museum for a dose of reality. The War Museum was opened by King George V in 1920 and is a “museum of social history, concentrating on people’s experiences of war, the way they behave in war and the impact of war on society.”

Inside the Imperial War Museum

I wanted to go to the museum to see a special exhibit called The Children’s War. Focusing on the child evacuees during the Second World War, the exhibit gives a poignant view into war through the eyes of children. There are diary excerpts, toys, photos, evacuee kits and a recreation of a house from the 1940s to give you a direct and tangible sense of life at the time.

The British evacuation during the Second World War was the largest evacuation in history. By the end of the war 3.5 million people, mostly children, had been evacuated from their homes. They were primarily evacuated to the countryside in England but thousands were sent to Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. Posters of the time exhorted mothers not to be tempted to bring their children back to the city:”Children are safer in the country: Leave them there.” It was an incredible exhibit and left me thinking a lot about Tim’s mother raising her 3 daughters in Gloucestershire during the war, while his father was in service. She always described their evacuation to the countryside as somewhat idyllic. For others, it was clearly a nightmare from which they never recovered.

On my way back toward the National Theatre, I came upon a market with just a dozen or so stalls behind the Royal Festival Hall.

The Market behind Royal Festival Hall

I bought a wonderful Moroccan Falafel with spicy Harissa sauce for lunch. Seems every weekend that I am out and about in London I come across a different market. This one was a perfect transition from the exhibit at the museum to the play at the National.

“The Kitchen”, by Arnold Wesker, takes place in a kitchen of a large restaurant circa 1950.

"The Kitchen" at The National Theatre

It is a director’s tour de force where 30 actors portray chefs, waitresses, cleaning staff, proprietors all in a balletic harmony and disharmony of action. Very few theatres in the world could produce something on this scale. It is a restaurant that apparently serves 1500 for lunch, and you believe it as the orders pour in and chefs chop and cook in a flurry of activity, flirting and fighting. It is a United Nations of workers “backstage” in the kitchen, all of whom are struggling to find their place in post-war England. A mammoth study of character and movement, there is also an element of allegory. A huge and fascinating piece of theatre, it would take at least 5 viewings to see all of the action.

I treated myself to a quick “Autumn Cocktail” at the market as I headed back to the train to Surbiton to begin Thanksgiving preparations for the next day.

Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England, or anywhere outside of North America I realize. But I am pretty hardwired for a harvest celebration at this time of year. Maddy hasn’t had a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving for years, and Amanda Lunberg is American and was definitely up for celebrating, even if it was not exactly the right time of year for her. So we all decided to do a big Thanksgiving dinner with Peta. Bryan, Penny & Eric.

The Brits are fascinated by the details of the holiday, trying to figure out if there is anything special that we do other than cooking and eating. “We are thankful. That’s all. Thankful for the harvest. Thankful to be with family and friends. Thankful for a holiday.” To which Tim adds, “Thankful that it has nothing to do with presents”.

Peta helped us to set up the harvest table. Jo made fresh salsa from the French tomato harvest for our hors d’oeuvres. We cooked a large, free-range turkey and made all of the “trimmings” – stuffing, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, roast onions, gravy, squash casserole and Tim’s fabulous red cabbage.

Maddy's Pecan Pie

Maddy made broccoli casserole and her famous pecan pie (Bryan says she is not allowed in the house without one). Amanda Lunberg made delicious pumpkin pie and Penny made apple crumble from her apple harvest. Mid-meal we took a break and were entertained by Eric with photos of their recent trip to Turkey and Greece.

Bryan opened Cremant and we all got very noisy and thankful, together.

A Side Trip to Bristol

With Tim in Boston, I decided to take a trip to visit Annie Thomas in Bristol. We’d met Annie in France and liked her immediately. She teaches Language and Literature to high school students, helping them to get their “A” levels. Tim and I had been to Bristol in 1976, but I remember nothing about the visit save for a dim memory of pub with a parrot.

The weather was unusually hot and lovely. After lunch in Annie’s terraced backyard, we went walking along the Avon River.

Bristol is a port city that has checkered past. It rose to prominence when John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailed from Bristol in 1497 and arrived at Newfoundland. Ah, a Canadian connection. A replica of his boat, the Matthew, was built to commemorate the 500thanniversary of the voyage, and it sailed to Canada in 1997.

The Matthew

The replica of the Matthew now sits in the harbor in Bristol, and it is amazing to think that such a small and delicate vessel could make it across the ocean.

Bristol became an important commercial port, but when I ask Annie what Bristol is known for she immediately says, “Slave Trade”. Bristol was on the triangle of slave trade that sent Africans to the New World to work the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. It is an infamous past that I see no acknowledgement of, although Annie says that all school children learn this history in school.

What I do see is a wealthy Georgian suburb, high in the hills, a sign of 17thcentury prosperity, built on slave trade.

Georgian Row houses on the hills above the harbour

In the 18th century, Bristol moved away from trade and developed as a prominent shipbuilding centre. It is still a working shipyard, although the boats repaired here are now pleasure crafts, not commercial vessels.

In recent years, the harbor has undergone a renaissance. Art galleries and museums have taken over the old warehouses, new flats give residents wonderful riverside views, and there is a profusion of small cafes and restaurants. There is an air of luxury, culture and fun.

On Sunday, the whole town seemed to be out enjoying the hot sun glistening on the water. On the water there were model speed boat races (really annoying with a terribly whiney sound), rowboats and sailboats.

The Bristol Harbour

Annie and I walked and talked, stopping for coffee at The Olive Shed, an outdoor café on the river that oozed garlic from a profusion of tapas choices.

We walked the entire perimeter of the harbor, passing the Llandoger Trow, the pub where Daniel Dafoe met Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe. I forget to go and check to see if they have a parrot.

The Llandoger Trow

We headed up the hill toward The Downs. Bristol has 2 universities, and classes were due to start the next day. Consequently, the Downs were filled with university students picnicking, singing, drinking and gently smoking various substances. It was a peaceful, party-like atmosphere. We climbed up the Cabot Tower, which was erected in 1897 to commemorate John Cabot’s voyage. It gives an amazing view of Bristol and the lands beyond.

Cabot Tower

For dinner we went to Annie’s favourite, The Grain Barge, a ship converted into a pub. We sat on sofas on the deck of the ship and looked over the harbor, watching the evening lights come on and a crescent moon sink under the horizon. “Gert Lush”, which is Bristolian for “Really Good”.

The next day, Annie took me to Clifton Village, which is the wealthy suburb of Georgian row houses up the hill from the harbor. Because Bristol is built upon the hill coming up from the river, our walking took us on tiny streets zigzagging through the town. At the top of the town is the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 76 meter high bridge spans the Avon Gorge from Clifton to Leigh Woods in northern Somerset.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

The bridge was completed in 1864, and the workers that we spoke to were doing some re-pointing that hadn’t been done in 50 years. One lane of traffic can go over the bridge at a time, and apparently 12,000 cars can cross every day. We walked over, fighting vertigo, amazed at the engineering marvel.

Bristol felt vibrant, beautiful and friendly. A city of 400,000, Annie boasted that she is able to walk to concerts, to the theatre, to her Italian, German and French classes, and to her work. And of course, she is able to walk down to the harbor, to enjoy dinner at the Grain Barge. A very livable city.

Annie in the walkways of Bristol

The Sound of Movement

Summer came to London last week. Tim left for Boston, to receive the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for his book “Blink and Caution”. I was in a mood to enjoy the rare hot English sunshine, so I packed a small picnic lunch and set out for Kingston-Upon-Thames.

The Bridge into Kingston-Upon-Thames

Kingston is about a 10-minute bus ride from Surbiton. It is a lovely market town and was, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the place where Kings were crowned. At least 7 different Saxon Kings were crowned there. Hence the name King’s Town.

In the centre of town there is a thriving market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, as well as a very good butcher, fish monger, cheese seller, a stall of olives and hot fresh pretzels. Last week Tim and I came to the market late in the day, when the sellers are practically giving things away, and we got the ingredients for a fabulous Roasted Sweet Potato and Fig Salad. I’ve included the recipe, because it was really unusual and very delicious. Back in Canada, figs are usually too expensive to consider for something like this, but we got 5 for £1 at the market.

The Market, ready for Xmas

On Friday the market was in chaos because there was a film shoot going on for a Christmas commercial. In the blazing summer sun the square was filled with film extras in winter hats and Christmas decorations.

The river, however, was not disturbed. There are walks all along the Thames, and they were filled with mothers with children, students, business people, retirees – everyone out enjoying the day, many clearly playing hooky. I went along to Canbury Gardens and sat on a bench under the dappled shade of a tree to eat my lunch, read my book and just generally watch the world go by.

Looking across the Thames

A few lazy canoes, kayaks and rowboats. A canal boat. A small motor boat. A tourist boat. Everything and everybody was moving slowly, gracefully. The swans glided by, occasionally rousing themselves to fly 50 yards up stream in the hopes of better eating. When swans fly they only barely rise out of the surface of the water, and they paddle their feet on the surface as though they are trying to get some traction from the water.

Swans flying along the river

Their feet make a great thwacking sound and, along the loud thumping of their wings, it is surprising how the sound of the movement of these ridiculously gorgeous birds is so noisy.

After my visit to Kingston I went into London to see the final performance of “Body of Work”, in which the sound of movement also plays a part.

Maddy in the tech rehearsal with the lighting designer

“Body of Work” explores body issues and body politics. It is a 60-minute piece with five dancers of very different body types. They work together and separately to question how we relate to our bodies. The music ranges from a kind of African drum base to synthetic scratching, but  one of the most striking sections uses the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. A dancer breaks off to dance a fearful and passionate response to the song. The other four dancers each take a corner of the stage and begin to draw on themselves with lipstick. You realize that the drawings are marks for a plastic surgeon – a circle and an X on the thigh; a nip and tuck of the stomach. The question in the song becomes: “Do I have to change myself for you to still love me, tomorrow?”

Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow?

In another section, the dancers draw “seams” along their legs and suddenly are on catwalks, striking the numb poses of fashion models. They break off, bind themselves in plaster gauze on sections of their body, and thrust themselves back to the catwalk. There are images of pre-natal life, of self-loathing, of longing and desire.

Sometimes the dancers appear as 5 individuals. Sometimes they seem to be different facets of one person, fighting to come to resolution. By the end of the piece the floor is littered in discarded clothes, bandages, water and mess, but the dancers are in smooth calm white dresses that resonate classicism. They move as a supportive and aware group. There is no sound but their breathing.