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Anyone who has been on this site in the last couple of days may have noticed a disappearing act. Many of the photos that were supposed to be embedded in the London posts simply vanished, replaced by a window from Flickr saying (in several languages) that they were unavailable. They were still on Flickr; the screw up had to do with my ageing MacBook and a program I use to organise my photos called Lightroom. In attempting to fix one problem, I triggered another.

I won’t bore you with the details. I have gone back and re placed photos in the posts that were affected so everything should appear as it is supposed to. Only the pics may be different to the ones that were there before. And I have uploaded some new pics that don’t have anything to do with the themes I chose to write about in this blog. I just thought you should see them.

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We will be doing our own disappearing act soon. We’re heading over The Netherlands for a couple of months. The peripatetic professor has a fellowship outside The Hague. I’m not quite done writing about London yet, but you can say hello to the land of dykes, bikes and tulips.

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There are any number of cities in the world in which the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl, but the stark disparity between the City of London and the East End is striking nonetheless. And it has been that way for a very long time. Fortunately for the adventuresome tourist, it is easy to explore both areas with informative guides. For my tour of the City, I signed up with Corinna of the “Hairy Goat,” who specialises in photographic tours.

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Corinna hails from “Down Under”, so we had some things to chat about, but it had to wait until the tour was over and she had a half hour to grab a sandwich before her next meet up. Running around “like a hairy goat” is one of the Aussie expressions she picked up somewhere along the way and it stuck with her. Corinna’s hectic work life seems like an apt description of the phrase.

Many of the outstanding details of the City are subtle and hard to spot, so it is very helpful to have someone along who can point them out and suggest angles. In addition to filling your head with history, she points out possible pictures that bring it alive. I had just started experimenting with slow shutter speeds and the effects are evident in my pics that afternoon.

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The boundaries of the City of London remain largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it still covers the “square mile” to the East of the City of Westminster and north of the Thames. This is the oldest part of London, stretching back to Roman times and even earlier. Aldgate, Ludgate, Bishopgate and Moorgate indicate where the main gates in the City wall were located.

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There are medieval and Christopher Wren churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, the ultra-modern Barbican Centre, Guildhall, Leadenhall Market, the Museum of London, narrow courtyards and claustrophobic alleyways butting up against spectacular modern buildings like the Gherkin and LLoyds, which represent the business of the City today– high finance.

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Many of the institutions that now reside in high rise buildings started in coffee shops, so it seems appropriate that the Royal Exchange has devoted most of its ground floor atrium to a coffee shop. The Monument to the Great Fire was erected near the point where the fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane in 1666. Fanned by a strong east wind, the flames raged through the city for three days. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Even though there only six verified deaths, many more were probably cremated in the inferno. Then, as now, the poor didn’t count for much.

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Ben from Alternative London Tours had a large group in tow when we set off to see the street art that seems to have taken over the walls in the East End. Like many people, I got my introduction to “street art” through the work of Banksy, that elusive character with the hoody who seems to have been everywhere with paint cans and stencils. Ben’s job was to introduce us to some of the artists who have been following in his footsteps, leading the the whole scene in new, more sophisticated directions.

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We began our tour at Spitalfields market, what used to be London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market. In 1991, it was moved lock, stock and barrel. All that remains is part of the Victorian structure. As in Canterbury, the Huguenots from France were some of the first refugees to settle in the East End. In the late 19th century, they were followed by the next wave– Jews. In the 1880’s there was an influx of 100,000 Russian, Polish, German, Austrian, Dutch and Romanian Jews. As they became more affluent, they moved to the outer suburbs or abroad, and the next wave of immigration began.

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Today, the East End is the most ethnically diverse area in the entire city as well as the poorest. Historically, it has suffered from under-investment in both housing stock and infrastructure. From the 1950s, the area represented the structural and social changes affecting the UK economy in a microcosm. It had one of the highest concentrations of council housing, the legacy both of slum clearance and war time destruction.

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The area around Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, called “London’s curry capital,” has been extensively regenerated and, among other things, has been dubbed Bangla Town. Ben brings our attention to a building which has gone through several incarnations, first as a Christian chapel, then a synagogue, and now, a mosque.

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The progressive closure of docks, cutbacks in railways and the closure and relocation of industry contributed to a long term decline, removing many of the traditional sources of low- and semi-skilled jobs. However, beginning in the 1980s, there have been a number of urban regeneration projects, most notably Canary Wharf, a huge commercial and housing development on the Isle of Dogs. Many of the 1960s tower blocks have been demolished or renovated, replaced by low rise housing, often in private ownership, or owned by housing associations.

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Much of the area remains one of the poorest in Britain and contains some of the capitol’s worst deprivation. This in spite of rising property prices and the extensive building of luxury apartments in the former dock areas and alongside the Thames. With rising costs elsewhere in the capital and the availability of brownfield land, the East End has become a desirable place for business. And the City of London is right next door.

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There are a lot more pics at my Flickr site. Click on any of the photos running alongside this post and you’ll be taken to “Red Flier,” where you can check out the rest of my pics.


Ask any English major if he has read “The Canterbury Tales” and he will tell you proudly that he has, or admit sheepishly that she managed to avoid it without the academic sky falling in. I believe it was one of the first tomes I tackled during my freshman year at the University of Montana, but I can’t really remember anything about it except that all the ffs stand in for ss and middle English was very different from modern English.

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Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and the cathedral became a popular pilgrimage destination.

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In the text, two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles apply the church’s secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer’s day was a person from whom one bought Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain.

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Chaucer’s Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The Summoner brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their interests. Chaucer’s Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. In The Friar’s Tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God.

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Last Saturday we signed up for another excursion outside London to see the famous cathedral and take in the other historical sites associated with what is, historically, one of key birth places of England. Our London Walks guide showed up right on time and let us know that we were going to be taking the fastest train in the British Isles, thanks to the fact that the route toward Canterbury shares the same track as the Chunnel train to Paris.

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Canterbury is only 87 km (54 miles) from London, but the journey takes an hour even on a train that is capable of speeds up to 200 kms an hour. Go figure. The town acquired its English name from the Old English Cantwareburh (“Kent people’s stronghold”). In 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert King Ethelberht of Kent to Christianity. After the conversion. St Augustine founded an episcopal see in the city and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

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The murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by knights beholden to King Hentry II led to the cathedral becoming a religious destination from his death in 1170 to this very day. According to Simon, even Henry II felt compelled to make the pilgrimage, enduring the faint-hearted whipping of the local citizens as he approached the cathedral.

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The literary heritage of Canterbury continued with the birth of the playwright Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century. There are those who question whether Shakespeare really existed, putting forth Marlowe as an excellent candidate for having written the plays after his strange, some say staged, murder.

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As soon as we set foot on solid ground in the town, we modern-day pilgrims are on the move, hastening to keep up with Simon’s speedy stroll and condensed commentary. His is a thankless task, covering too much history in too little time. In short order, we are introduced to the Greyfriars and the Blackfriars, St. Augustine and Aethelberht, Archbishop Alphege and William the Congueror, not to mention Dane John and others I have already forgotten.

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It will surprise none of you to learn that the word “canter” comes down to us from the middle-ages, when the pilgrims would spur their horses forward after sighting the towers of the cathedral in the distance. By the 17th century, Canterbury’s population was 5,000; of whom 2,000 were French-speaking Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution and the war in the Spanish Netherlands. The Huguenots introduced silk weaving into the city, which by 1676 had outstripped wool weaving.

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In 1620 a man named Robert Cushman negotiated the lease of the Mayflower in the village for the purpose of transporting the Pilgrims to America. The first scheduled railway service in the world began in Canterbury. Many historical structures remain, including a city wall founded in Roman times and partly rebuilt in the 14th century, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the walls of a Norman castle. The Cathedral and a handful of other sites in the town make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The town of Canterbury is one of the most visited communities in all of England. Fortunately, many of the streets in the centre of the town are traffic free. It is a very busy place on weekends, uncomfortably crowded with tourists like us. I suspect it is not dissimilar now to what it was like in the middle ages, when pilgrims arrived in droves, seeking food and shelter and souvenirs to bring back home. At least there is refuge available in the many pubs, restaurants, coffee shops or in the spectacular cathedral itself.

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Much of the cathedral’s stonework is damaged and crumbling, the roofs are leaking and much of the stained glass is badly corroded. It is thought that if action is not taken now, the rate of decay and damage being inflicted on the building will increase dramatically with potentially disastrous results, including closure of large sections of the cathedral in order to guarantee the safety of the million plus worshippers, pilgrims and tourists who visit the cathedral every year. Needless to say, there is an ongoing fund raising campaign. One of the “Harry Potter” producers wanted to rent it as film location, but the Archbishop decided the cathedral was not a set.

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Once the Evensong service begins, the cathedral seems to undergo a metamorphosis. The hordes of visitors settle down. Music is the purest form of transport and the vast stone structure resonates with a waterfall of voices in this little town in England.


William Eades favoured warm red brick when he had the large country house built near the top of Holly Hill in 1693. His father was a bricklayer, a practical man, and the home reflects the taste of an artisan more than that of an architect despite its size and imposing exterior. Joshua Gee bought the house in 1706. He was a Quaker linen merchant who also traded in iron ore, one of the founding members of a company created to have pig-iron produced in Maryland for sale in England. At one stage in the company’s history, he went into partnership with the father of George Washington.

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The house got its current name when James Fenton purchased the property one hundred years after it was built. The Fenton family had made their fortune exporting coal from the city of Riga in Russia back to England. The family was very large and social, sponsoring weekly dancing classes for the girls. In 1829, James Fenton presided over a meeting of Hampstead tenants to protest a last effort by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson to develop Hampstead Heath. Fortunately, his heir ceded his rights to the Heath and it passed into public ownership in 1871.

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Fenton house and its grounds served as a gracious home for a number of different families until it was bought for the last time by a Lady Binning in 1934. She bequeathed the estate, and her fine collection of porcelain, to the National Trust in 1952. As well as chinaware, Fenton House is the repository for Benton Fletcher’s exceptional collection of early keyboard instruments and the art collection of the late actor, Peter Barkworth, a resident of Hampstead for over forty years.

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Major Benton Fletcher, who amassed the harpsichords, clavichords, virginals and spinets, bequeathed the instruments on condition they were played regularly. If you pass an audition you may be allowed a tinkle; otherwise you can attend one of the concerts that take place throughout the year. The National Trust houses have just re-opened after a winter hibernation, and I was lucky enough to be going through when a local pianist dropped by to give an Italian harpsichord a beautiful workout.

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The formal gardens, with lawns, clipped hedges and flowery bowers give way to a more practical fruit, vegetable and herb garden in summer, making up of a 300-year-old orchard. There is a two pound donation requested in the honesty box to tour the garden, which is spare this time of year but very elegant all the same.

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The National Trust’s only public-access example of international modernism, Number 2 Willow Road, is the middle house in a terrace of three houses designed by Hungarian-born émigré architect Ernö Goldfinger. During his studies in Paris, Goldfinger was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier’s former mentor, Auguste Perret, an expert in designing reinforced concrete structures.

In the early 1930s, Goldfinger met and married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell fortune. The remainder of his career would be based in the UK. Hampstead was a popular place for artists and architects after the War, and the family home near the Southern end of the Heath was completed in 1939. Ernö and Ursula stayed at Number 2 for the rest of their lives. Goldfinger’s view that ‘the most significant thing about a house is the view from within it’ springs to mind when you look from the huge windows toward the Heath.

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His choice of location incurred the wrath of an MP and other local grandees opposed to the project. The most notable of those offended was, of course, Ian Fleming. Fleming had been among several of the objectors to the pre-war demolition of the cottages in Hampstead that were removed to make way for Goldfinger’s house, but it was a chance encounter on the golf course between Ian and Ursula Goldfinger’s cousin that led to his decision to use the name for a villain in his book by the same name.

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The architect consulted his lawyers when “Goldfinger” was published in 1959, which prompted Fleming to threaten to rename the character ‘Goldprick’, but eventually Erno decided not to sue; Fleming’s publishers agreed to pay his costs and gave him six free copies of the book.

Goldfinger did make a modest attempt to fit the home in with the Hampstead aesthetic. Although it is made of reinforced concrete, the building is clad in red brick. The only real harmony, however, is on the inside. You can see what the architect was attempting to do with his easy-to-clean hospital floors and careful window and skylight placement for optimum natural light. He loved space-saving gadgets, pocket doors, hidden storage and fold-up beds. He was aiming for clean lines and lots of natural light. Unfortunately, my visit happened on a morose, rainy day, so I wasn’t able to enjoy its best feature.

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What makes this house unique is that everything remains as he left it when he died in 1987. He and Ursula were friends with a number of artists from Paris and London. Paintings and sculpture from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose and Henry Moore and others decorate the home. The colour scheme is unusual and certainly striking, but not unsettling. The furniture, designed by Goldfinger and his associates, looks a little dated now; the only room that really appealed to me was the dining room with its wonderfully deep windows.

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The volunteers are enthusiastic, however, more than making up for Goldfinger’s reputation as a prickly personality. The short documentary about his life and times is worth watching. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the house, so I have been forced to rely on the work of others for this post. It would be hard to imagine two more different homes representing domestic architecture, and it is easy to see them both on the very same day. In between there is a nice long walk through the heart of Hampstead.


Let me admit, first off, that I like theatre but I’m not a big fan of musicals. Some people may not see how it is possible to say that one likes theatre that does not include the singing and dancing kind. It certainly restricts the theatrical offerings, probably knocking out about ninety per cent of the plays on offer in London and New York.

Despite my extended bout with the flu bug, I have not been entirely comatose during our stay here. We were fortunate to have arrived in time for the London Mime Festival, which encompasses a diverse range of theatrical expression, from pantomime and circus-oriented acts to brilliant expressions of visual imagination. It is worth braving the wintry weather of January to sample the work of artists from all over Europe.

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I had purchased tickets to a reprise of a play at the National Theatre while a friend was visiting, but our friend was under the weather and my wife had came down with the flu before passing it on to me. “Port” was a wonderful play, covering thirteen years in the lives of two troubled siblings, whose mother abandons them to flee her abusive husband and the bleak prospects of life in Stockport, a city in the Midlands. The text and performances were excellent and the scene changes seemed magical, one of the perks of having the National Theatre at one’s disposal.

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Our next theatrical night out was another reprise, this time the 25th anniversary staging of “Our Country’s Good,” based on the true story of the production by convicts in New South Wales of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.” Timerlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the Thomas Keneally book, was a hit when it first came out and continues to be widely performed.

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This particular production is stunning, from the arrival of the convicts in Australia to the opening night of the play. You are THERE, grappling with the emotional fireworks triggered by prisoners and officers who are psychically and sometimes physically shackled together, playing out their designated roles in this strange and hostile land. The staging of the play represents an escape from their roles as prisoners but it is threatening to their guards.

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We first came across the work of Robert Lepage when we were living in Montreal. “Les Aiguilles et l’opium” (Needles and Opium) melds an experience from his own life (a failed love affair) with the entangled love lives and drug addictions of French surrealist author Jean Cocteau and American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Lepage played all three characters with captivating visual theatrics, including his suspension between 2 propellers, simulating a flight between Paris and New York. It was a brilliant piece of theatre. That hooked us. Two years ago we saw another production of his here in London– the Blue Dragon.

You can see a clip of it here–http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=o0E_Y5eXRKc

In the Blue Dragon, the theatrical invention was there, but the text was less interesting than Needles and Opium. That alone could not have prepared us for “Playing Cards 1: Spades,” a truly dreadful play. The Boy Wonder theatrical alchemist who has succeeded on a global scale in theatre and opera has somehow failed to distinguish gold from garbage. None of the characters is real enough to make us care about his fate, and the elaborate staging in the round reminded me of a hokey circus or a video game. The play is set in Las Vegas, which says it all.

My visits to London’s Art Museums have been similarly hit and miss. I have been to four photographic exhibits and a half dozen other art shows. My last show, at the Tate Modern, was a retrospective of Lichtenstein. I came to the conclusion after wading through room after room that it was too bad he was so successful so early in his career. He never needed to explore much beyond Benday dots. The last room in the exhibit held a small selection of paintings that were done at the very beginning and end of his career, before and after his phenomenal success. Oil on canvas, brush strokes, vibrant and alive.

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The Manet show at the Royal Academy is the one I would consider unmissable. It is the first major exhibition of this work in the UK, the first to focus on his practice as a portrait painter. “His elegant awkwardness of style, absolute honesty of vision, and persistent inovation and risk-taking established Edouard Manet the father of modern art.” This show was five years in the making and well worth all all the effort. For that alone, I am grateful to be in London.

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