Tube riders litter the train with newspapers, which other riders pick up to alleviate their boredom. Coming home last night I saw a grisly headline on one of these throwaways, “Sixth Stab Murder in Week of Death.” In London? The first sentence of the story was horrifying. “A schoolboy has been stabbed to death with a foot-long knife by a gang of thugs in south London.” It was within memory that a single shooting death made national news. Compared to America, the UK is still a kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb. Verbal and psychological violence are another matter.
A London Summer with Huntley Dent
Clouds over Sloane Square, and the posh and spicy girls known as Sloane Rangers weren’t tramping around with a slew of shopping bags over their arms. Or not that I could see two days ago.A wag has renamed them the trustafarians, which seems to be sticking. I had a drink with a new friend named Warwick and told him that he and I were the only two people in the bar named after castles. “Presumably,” he said.We had met while waiting to troop into the tiny, dark, primitively ventilated Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre to be assaulted by Relocated, a stage provocation that has divided the critics while scaring off the public.
Walking across the Charing Cross footbridge, wishing the Thames didn’t look muddy no matter how blue the sky, I spied what looked like a Safeway supermarket attempting liftoff from the opposite shore. Actually, it was Royal Festival Hall. The building consists of a multi-storied cube topped with a plain barrel vault. You’d never suspect the interior was devoted to music and dance – it could easily be a widget factory. But gratitude is due the city planners, who plunked RFH down in 1951 when the South Bank was littered with little else but closed factories and depressing detritus from the war. This year the hall reopened after expensive refurbishment, with public promises that its bad acoustics had been remedied.
What better way to anticipate the Fourth of July than spending time with Richard Strauss, who fiddled while the Nazis burned Europe? He languished in apparent dotage as the Yanks stormed the beach at Normandy. Suddenly the first oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra showed up at Strauss’s mountain retreat in Bavaria. Then a uniformed GI, the oboist commissioned a concerto from the snowy-haired, stork-like composer, and a minor masterpiece was born.
Far from celebrating our independence day, the British are probably trying to forget America and the whole era when Tony Blair was Bush’s poodle. After a miserably cold, damp spring, there was a national scare over strawberries – specifically, that the crop would go moldy and rot in the fields. Strawberries and cream are de rigeurfor finals at Wimbledon. Now it’s finals weekend and the berries came through. But there’s a smell of black mold seeping out under the doors of the tiny Almeida Theatre in Islington. Ibsen is afoot, and the fate of souls is being tossed around on stage like a medicine ball. A very heavy medicine ball.
Ugliness, thy name is Barbican. No other great orchestra has been miserably consigned to a concrete mausoleum of art except the London Symphony. I went to hear them last night in an all-Sibelius program under Sir Colin Davis. One approaches the Barbican by trudging through an underpass with four lanes of traffic two feet from your elbow and banks of jaundice-colored sodium vapour lamps overhead. The building itself looks like something airlifted intact from East Berlin. The architectural style is a spawn of Brutalism, a masochistic favourite with the British in the post-war era, but without being quite as punitive.
The long nights are already on the wane, but one leaves the theatre with a glow on the horizon, and a newspaper can be read outdoors well after nine o’clock.Fresh off the plane (i.e., as grungy as five-day-old socks) I tried not to go groggy at the National Theatre’s production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Putting on a play by Shaw is like sticking your head out of a foxhole to see who shoots. Nobody could be more fusty and out of favour (perhaps the two Barries, James and Philip), but the London critics were mostly happy and none were snarky.