Every year, or at least for the second year running, which I think we can regard as meaning every year, I seem to end up walking through Waterloo when it’s Ascot. This meant the concourse was full of neophytes uniting bewilderment, over-dressing and inebriation in their persons. I wanted the quickest train to Twickenham, for a visit to Pope’s Grotto. As it turned out, this innocent 11:20 service served double duty as the “Royal Ascot Express”, indicated by a specially printed sign on platform 20. The racegoers tottered and swayed towards this goal, the furthest away of all platforms, and I joined them. It’s not often that I’m mildly jostled by the idly swaying top hat in the hand of the man in front, while surging towards a train.
Because I went for a distant carriage, there was a hiatus, until the gaudy horde arrived. When the carriage was pretty full, an American lady asked if I could swap seats with her friend, to allow them to sit together. When I agreed and moved, she displayed an ordinality error in her over-effusive gratitude:
Would you like an orange juice or something?
I feel like I have to bribe you, for being so sweet.
Normally the bribe is offered first. Pfft. I was now sharing a group of six seats with three lekking men and two American women.
“I told myself I wouldn’t drink on the train,” said one of them, who appeared to be leading their conversation. They were all drinking their mini-bottles of champagne or beer, and eating their sandwiches. Mind those expensive clothes… Tips about Ascot, and bottle openers, were shared. I think the best way of distilling the nature of their interactions is this quote:
Adam plays much better golf than I’ve seen, but the moment he hits a pressure situation…
Ah, golf. One of my long dead grannies used to advise an interest in golf, tennis and bridge, in order to Get On. Hopeful people wearing similar Ascot uniforms at Clapham Junction and Richmond had no chance of boarding, and it was a little awkward squeezing past to the doors at Twickenham. Outside, two marketing ladies asked “Are you interested in cooking, Sir?” “Not really,” was my terse but polite and accurate reply.
Nearly two years later I still haven’t written about my visit to the Margate Shell Grotto. Auto-tsk. Pope’s Grotto is all that remains of Alexander Pope’s villa by the Thames. Reliant as ever on IanVisits, I knew it was open that day, which was likely to be a much better experience than going during Open House in September. Radnor School has built up around the grotto, so it had a slight air of a visit to a polling station, albeit an unusually well situated and appointed one. In addition to guides with the locations of specific rocks and features, they lent us small torches. There’s something very appealing about the sustained labour and interest represented by a grotto, though I suppose it’s not an enterprise many of us can indulge. It was only near the very end that I bumped my head on one of the dangling outcrops. Bah.
“Well, that was an unexpected treat, wasn’t it,” was one comment, while I heard a wife chide her husband:
You’re just treating it like a treasure hunt now, aren’t you.
because he was ticking things off on the printed sheet. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t really spot the bit of Giant’s Causeway that was supposed to be there.
Next it was quite a schlep to Golden Square, to the Frith Street Gallery for one of their two Fiona Tan exhibitions. After much pfaffing from District to Piccadilly, I ended up sitting opposite a middle-aged couple with his and hers Steve Watches, which he couldn’t resist using for some function or other. Soon the second swamping of the day transpired, this time a gaggle of Italian schoolkids learning English. “Move Language Ahead” it said on their white satchels. The woman corralling them with her stern teacher voice counted them all back again on the platform, like Brian Hanrahan.
Inventory consisted of six projections of footage taken in the Soane’s Museum. Something about the close-ups of the statues seemed to animate their faces and make them more poignant. You wondered about the histories of the objects, how so many of them came to be damaged (noses especially), and the histories of those people or gods they represented. There were different qualities and sizes of video/film and she cleverly edited them to provide simultaneous different views of the same object, with variations in texture as well. One thing I found interesting, but which perhaps should only have been remarked by a projector salesman, was that when they weren’t projecting anything, i.e. there was just a blank image, they ranged from a variety of greys to blacks. Did this mean some of them were better than others? Was it meaningful variation?
In Soho Square there was a very different show, Ghost Dwellings, the three rooms all bearing the lived-in look that’s quite familiar to me. “It smells like an old house,” was one comment and the first room was indeed rather fusty. It was pleasing to see some rock samples, after the grotto, and an owl statue, after Inventory.
The video footage here was of decayed Detroit. Good, but as always just a reminder of Mike Kelley’s marvellous Mobile Homestead. Next door was a cramped bedroom, with footage of unfinished premium housing developments near Cork. This was less powerful than the others, because it represented unfulfilled potential as opposed to actual loss or deterioration. My favourite was the room downstairs, which was partially a working area, with vacuum formed model parts, WD-40, dangling cables and other oddments. At the other end of the room was a video of Fukushima and the surrounding area after the tsunami. Objects that stood out for me included a telescope labelled Family 1000 and the blasted trees on the coastline, plus the train tracks already submerged under weeds.
Fitzroy Square next for Every Object Tells A Story. The slight problem here was that the objects only really made sense with the large catalogue and addendum, though I suppose there wasn’t really room for a lot of blurbs on the wall. Some of the descriptions were mini-essays and one of a trio of Americans read out the whole thing for her companions. She was delighting in ringing a large gong when I came in. “Does it call people in for dinner?” It’s good to see opinionated collections, I suppose, though I do think it’s a problem if the main interest in the object is the story behind it, however interesting that may be.
Disturbingly close to work though it was, I wanted to see rooms 4 and 5 of Forensics at the Wellcome Collection, having seen the first 3 a few weeks earlier during their late Friday opening. As I’d been warned, there was quite a large queue, headed by a member of staff who kept commiserating with and chatting to new arrivals. Behind me was a group of two couples. The men kept making a big joke of stealing over to sofas so they could have a sit down, their places being kept in the queue by the women, until they caught up with them. Bracingly transgressive though it was to be able to breeze quickly through the rooms I’d already seen, it was of course also very busy in the remaining 2. The volume of people meant that the cooling fans in one of the exhibits had failed and the experience of watching footage from Bosnia in the forensic fridge was a little diminished. The interviews with the barrister and forensic anthropologist were very good, as was Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of the “Brides in the bath” murders. Right at the end was Taryn Simon’s The Innocents. Someone was asking a staff member, bizarrely, if this was “just political correctness”. The Wellcome person was very patient with him… I was glad I managed to see the whole thing, overcrowding notwithstanding.
Final excursion of the day was to Curzon Bloomsbury to see London Road. For some reason there were a succession of wrong seat incidents. Not sure why the Phoenix screen should be such a focus of recalcitrants. The film was very good, albeit also a reminder of the greatness of The Arbor. Very unusually, I recognised a couple that I’ve seen more than once on the Central Line, normally full of anonymised travellers.
Final observation of the day was that at this point in the year, at the right time of night, if you’re sitting on the right, there’s a lovely view of the sunset in the clouds at Leyton. Lovely poetic Leyton.