From Tallis To Garibaldi

Most of my working life has been spent in Greenwich, now upgraded to “Royal” status because of the former presence of a monarch’s palace there.

In fact, Henry VIII was baptised in the local parish church of Saint Alphege where I attended a lunchtime piano recital given by students from the Trinity College of Music.

The royal palace was replaced by the seamen’s hospital which in turn was occupied by the royal naval college. This has now moved outside London and its premises, probably the finest renaissance buildings in the UK (and designed by Wren and Hawksmoor) are now the campus of the University of Greenwich.

The recital included works by De Falla played by Sofia Sarmento from Portugal and Schubert’s complete Moments Musicaux played by Italian Filippo Di Bari.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing both young performers and wish them well in their future careers. St Alphege, of course, has a long and noble musical history since the time when that “father of English church music” Thomas Tallis, was organist there. Part of that organ’s keyboard has survived to this day.

Greenwich, although so familiar and pleasurable to me only disappointed in one respect: the ghastly new display of the famous tea clipper the “Cutty Sark”. How anyone could submerge her fine hull in a glass and steel cocoon, completely destroying her fine line is anybody’s business.

From Greenwich we made our way to the Italian Institute in Belgrave square where an unusual musical recitation, “Garibaldi in London” was given composed by Marcello Panni who has worked extensively as composer and conductor and has written several operas staged at La Scala, Florence, Rome and Bonn.

Garibaldi was memorably quoted by Tennyson as “having the divine stupidity of a hero” and was both feted and feared by the British establishment: feted because of his romantic exploits in uniting cultivated Britons’ favourite country of exile, and feared because, as Queen Victoria correctly said, he was also a revolutionary.

The music was lively in a sort of post Weill-jazzy idiom and aptly described the ambiguity of Garibaldi’s one and only visit to the British Isles in 1864.

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The recitation did not include one incident which I recollect was depicted in the “Illustrated London news” of the time. On his way to the Crystal palace to address working men’s associations Garibaldi passed my old school, Dulwich College watched by hundreds of enthusiastic boys. Seeing the horses in some difficult when approaching the steep hill leading to the palace the Dulwich boys tied ropes onto the carriage and helped pull Garibaldi’s retinue along College road for quite some distance.

 

Her Majesty’s Goose at Kew

We decided to visit Kew palace. Whether one wants to visit the Royal botanical Gardens (world heritage site since 2003) or not, one has to enter it to arrive at Kew palace. But who wouldn’t want to see these fabulous gardens at any time?

A visit to the Royal Botanical gardens at Kew and its Palace is a delightful way to spend a sunny afternoon in London. (And London has been particularly sunny while I was there). As life members of the Arts fund we were able to enter them at half price (and Kew palace for free), which is a considerable saving since the standard admission charge is £15 – a far cry when to get past the turnstiles one placed just one penny in the slot – not centuries ago but as recently as 1971 (if I remember correctly). This means that the admission price has increased at least 30,000 times! Having said this, a visit to Kew was worth every penny, inflated, decimal or not!

Kew has not only the largest collection of plants in the world; it has the best example of Victorian iron and glass building in Decimus Burton’s  palm house, the best example of chinoiserie in Sir William Chambers’ (he of Somerset house) pagoda, indeed the best of so many things.

From the Victoria entrance we headed for the palace which was actually used not so much as a “palace” (it’s only the size of a large house) but as a nursery for King George III’s children (of which he had fifteen who survived sired off Queen Charlotte who died here in 1818).

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On our way we spotted a goose that had chosen a slightly exposed nesting place. Perhaps she enjoyed classical architecture!

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A detour to the water-lily house revealed the most delicate wonders:

Kew palace must be one of the smallest of royal palaces and was George III’s favorite residence. For me the highlight was its herb garden which was beautifully laid out and provided some of the remedies which the king’s physicians tried on his madness, (remember the film starring the incomparable Nigel Hawthorne?), which has now been diagnosed in retrospect as bi-polar syndrome.

Nearby were the kitchens with a delightful vegetable garden outside which also grew artichokes.

The King’s bathroom would definitely be in need of an upgrade should any royal visitors take up residence here again.

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All the palace rooms were delightfully presented and our visit was made much more alive by costumed attendants:

Kew palace was once also the scene of fetes champetres including this one which featured a giant swan..

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It was clearly the scene of much music making – some of which continues today:

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We found the palace very well-displayed but the only thing I wished for was that the brick work should have been stripped of its red paint to more clearly expose its unusual (for the UK) Flemish bond which has also given the building the alternative name of the Dutch house.

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Back in Kew Gardens we explored the tree walk which was only opened in 2010. It was definitely not for vertigo sufferers since there was also a slight sway on it but what a great way to climb trees without the effort or the possibility of breaking one’s neck!

My visits to Lucca’s botanical gardens, still continuing to be very delightful, will never be the quite the same again although, at least, I’ll be more able to afford its entrance fee of three euros!

In the evening at the Punch tavern in Fleet Street we enjoyed a Beckenham historical society supper together with the company of an old school mate. Let us say that the company was rather better than the food…although the beer made up for that.

 

From Longoio to London

 

When I packed my suitcase on the 10th of this month to attend a family event in London I was made to realize that I’d left out an important item but as he had no passport I had to leave Napoleone behind.

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Stansted airport’s architect must have been partly inspired by Liverpool street station’s architect as the roof supporting piers declare:

Anyway, both of these ports of entry into the UK are worthy of its great history of engineering skills in a way which Heathrow airport and Victoria station are not!

What is less worthy are the train fares in the UK. Either one spends six pounds on a terror Terravision bus or twenty-four pounds on a railway single ticket! When I gasped at the price for a thirty-six mile train journey the ticket issuer agreed with me saying it was disgustingly high and would only please the likes of share-holders. However, since there were major traffic hold-ups around London (I’d taken an early (6 am flight) from Pisa to save on fares and, of course, arrived just in time for the rush hour!) I took the train instead.

I was glad to see that there were still station platform whistle-blowers around.

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Not having visited the UK for three years, but having been born and having lived and worked in the great wen for most of my life, the culture shock was only slight. The countryside was beautifully green:

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Liverpool street travel centre was helpful and suggested that with my time in London I should get an oyster card, a sort of travel debit card. Indeed, as I write this now all money seems to have been banned from changing hands between passengers and conductors on London’s public transport system. No wonder they are closing down most ticket offices…

No, this is not a picture from Banaras but from a North London inner suburb I was travelling to, quite near Neasden town centre. How could “Private Eye” have belittled that place with its marvellously executed Hindu temple?

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If one has just five days to spend in London then one should clearly spend them wisely. On our first evening we attended a triple bill at the Royal Ballet (booked beforehand, of course).

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The evening was an absolute delight. First was Ashton’s “The Dream” based on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer night’s dream” with music by Mendelssohn and arranged by Lanchberry. A modern minimalist piece followed with transcendental music by Arvo Part. The final ballet was a hilarious take-off of a serious Chopin piano recital with the wandering thoughts of the audience, whether they be malevolent or romantic, actually personified in the ballet. I realised that, in Italy, not only was I missing live Wagner but also a great dance company.

Covent Garden’s foyer always has some interesting ballet costumes on display:

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 It’s amazing to think that this area was a working fruit and veg market until well into the nineteen-seventies (indeed, the opening scene of Shaw’s Pygmalion takes place there). I wonder what happened to that extraordinary venue called “Middle Earth” where I heard Captain Beefheart and the Pink Floyd perform. Here is a historic picture of the market’s last vendor:

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Covent Garden station still has lifts instead of escalators and two of these were being replaced. So to return home we decided to take the Piccadilly line from Green Park and hopped on a bus to get there. Armed with my oyster card public transport in London was no problem and on the front seat of the top deck of a new “Boris” bus I got nice views of London by night.

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The best thing about the Boris Bus is that you can board and alight without difficulty as the rear end of the bus is a hark-back to the old days of the Routemaster. Here are the two compared:

It seemed almost unbelievable that I had started the day so early in a remote Apennine valley, making sure the ducks and cats were adequately catered for with food and water and finished up in the upper stalls of the royal opera  house delighting in the performance of the best ballet company of the world.

Must do this more often. I thought.

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(Stephen McRae as Oberon in “The Dream”.)