London? Yes, Philosopher and I went for a day out, on the train. Would you believe I hadn’t been since 23 January? We headed to Tate Britain for the Beardsley exhibition, but got waylaid by an Extinction Rebellion protest… It was all interesting, and mostly fine, but got stressful and a bit disagreeable as the day wore on.
The train journey up there was no problem. Both Hastings station and the train were very quiet. I thought I’d find wearing a mask all that time tiresome, but once I got stuck into my book I scarcely noticed.
Arriving at Charing Cross I felt quite excited. We got sarnies etc from Marks – we didn’t know what cafe situation we might encounter later on. Trafalgar Square was so quiet…
As soon as we started walking down Whitehall we realised that something was up. Even allowing for these abnormal times, it was suspiciously deserted and full of police. The road was closed to traffic, and helicopters hovered above our heads. By the time we passed Downing Street, protesters started to appear – Extinction Rebellion. It transpires that they had a massive protest yesterday which was to continue today. As it was unreported by the mass media I hadn’t even thought about it.
We guessed that the protesters planned to waylay Johnson as he left Downing Street on his way to Parliament for PM’s Questions. As we got nearer Parliament Square the numbers of police increased. The actual square was full of protesters, surrounded by barriers and a cordon of police. They all looked quite peaceful and cheerful – music, the usual drumming, and a few earnest types lying in the road. Some of them looked quite elderly. Don’t get me wrong, I have sympathy with the climate lobby but I do wonder quite what they hoped to gain by their protest – it all seemed a bit half-hearted. It didn’t affect us at all, we just yomped past them at a safe social distance.
The area round Whitehall and Parliament now seems to now be the base for any old protests – we saw anti-Brexit, religious nutters, something about veterans and a load of random cranks camped opposite Downing Street – something about vaccinations I think.
So many massive, threatening-looking iron barriers – anti-terrorist I guess. Grim. It sounds like oldsters talk, but life was safer in the past – yet we are told our life is so much better now. Folk of our age have memories of, for instance, being able to stand outside 10 Downing Street, and even posing for photos outside the door of Number 10. Once, when I was a teenager, I was tasked with showing the daughter of an American dog friend of my mother’s round London. I fetched her from her hotel in Park Lane and we went to Downing Street. She was not impressed by the low-key appearance of the house. As we stood there, the famous black door opened and Harold and Mary Wilson came out. ‘Look!’ I squeaked in excitement, ‘it’s the Wilsons!’ The American girl looked puzzled. ‘What? Who are they?’
Back to the present. We ate our sarnies sitting on a bench outside Tate Britain.
As we had time to kill before our exhibition slot we revisited some of our old family favourites. The gallery was nearly empty, and all marked out as one-way routes so we seemed to walk miles – we kept setting off in the wrong direction and having to retrace our steps through the deserted and echoey long halls in the middle of the gallery First, we found this one: ‘Our English Coasts’ by Holman Hunt, painted at Clive Vale Farm, where our house now stands (see this post from 2013).
Next, literal family. Sam Haile was the father of Philosopher’s first wife, sadly dying just before she was born. He is the grandfather of my two step-children. I only ever met Haile’s wife, the renowned potter Marianne de Trey, once, although Philosopher obviously knew her well. She recently died aged over 100.
After all that, I didn’t actually find the Beardsley Exhibition that enjoyable, despite it receiving rave reviews. All those small and detailed black and white drawings have to be examined at close range, and of course one didn’t actually want to stand near anyone else. The exhibition wasn’t crowded but it was hard to see some of it – especially the rude bits, which tended to have visitors riveted motionless in front of them. One thing was apparently so rude it had little curtains covering it up. Turned out to be a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe which Philosopher said he’d seen years ago in Private Eye.
After a bit the drawings got a bit samey, and I lost interest in trying to peer at them. I remember finding Beardsley absolutely riveting in the 60s and 70s. I liked the witchy women, the drama, the flowing lines, and I presume the penises. I had Beardsley prints on my bedroom walls and even tried to do pen and ink drawings like his. Oddly enough I found one of my drawings when I was clearing out my personal papers during lockdown. Very feeble, of Lady Godiva, obviously done when I was at Lanchester Poly in Coventry. I threw it out without a thought. That was then, and I was very, very young.
I hadn’t realised he was only 25 when he died. I wonder what he would have produced when he was older.
We had a cuppa in the virtually deserted gallery cafe before walking back to Charing Cross. I’d assess the gallery as a safe, well-organised set-up – fine if you can get there.
The protest was largely over as we walked past Westminster, but by the time we caught the train back our stress levels were building up and it all started to get unpleasant – not helped by a bloke with severe mental health issues sitting too near us with no mask, ranting and raving down his phone at some health worker about losing his medication. Battleaxe is usually savage about tackling people without masks, but on this occasion… no. Then, a load of school kids got on at Tonbridge. I actually had to move seats to get away from them.
Overall, the London experience was interesting but it is wearing and a bit threatening having to watch out for other people all the time, particularly strange, unknown, big city people. We were better off than some because we could walk everywhere – wouldn’t have fancied London buses or, perish the very thought, the Underground. Wouldn’t have fancied a London pub either – shame. Hopefully things will improve as time goes on – but we have been saying that for months.
We were both glad to get home.