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The Venerable Bede

From this visit to Saint Bede, I learned that he popularised the use of the Anno Domini year-numbering system, without which it would have been much harder for me to work out that he died 1,288 years ago.

The idea of people still talking about me or visiting my shine a millennium from now is both depressing and terrifying, but the odds suggest it’s really not something worth worrying about.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

Choice isn’t always good

I recently dined at a restaurant in Leeds. It was part of a chain described by its owners as ‘sophisticated’, ‘elegant’ and ‘flawless’. The food was, indeed, delicious—much better than I expected. Regrettably, the bill was also larger than I expected.

I was surprised that the maître d’ handed me six menus as he seated me: the main menu, a prix fixe menu, a specials menu, a wine list, a cocktail list, and a mocktail list. In situations like this, my mum is wont to request a filing cabinet, though in her absence, I just muttered something like ‘goodness’.

In the years since the pandemic, I haven’t been anywhere where I’ve experienced a similar surfeit of menus, and it struck me as a little strange. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual a few years ago; the range might have been a plus, the keenness to fill so many pages indicative of a desire to wax lyrical about the virtues of the dishes.

These days, it reads as a lack of confidence in food quality. The menu served not as a brief collection of equally excellent options but an endless list of things one might fancy.

It’s interesting to note how my perception of an approach has changed without me noticing.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Travel, .

The Beacon

Brighton’s i360 is sometimes described as the world’s first ‘vertical pier’, but Redcar’s similarly-described construction was completed three years earlier. Neither are up my street.

This post was filed under: Travel, .

‘Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto’

This is another V&A exhibition for which you can chalk my attendance up to having complimentary access. I’ve no particular interest in Chanel, and certainly wouldn’t have paid twenty-odd quid to wander round it. Could it pull off the trick of Diva and reel in even this sceptical visitor? In a word: no.

If you covet Chanel clothing, this is the exhibition for you: hundreds of dresses, suits and more are assembled for you to gawp at. And gawp people did: it’s clear that this is why the vast majority of the crowd had come. The gender balance in the crowd was, shall we say, uneven.

However, if you’re more interested in Coco Chanel as a person, the influences behind her designs, or her creative and professional journey through significant social changes, you’ll likely be disappointed.

I might have felt differently if this were an art gallery exhibition, and I was being invited to contemplate the pieces and draw my own interpretations and conclusions. I’m not that into fashion, so I still doubt it would have moved me, but the lack of analysis would have ranked less than it did in a museum exhibition promising a named designer’s manifesto.

There’s a room in this exhibition with a gracefully curved, back-lit, two-storey display case filled with dozens of Chanel suits. I witnessed people enter this space and gasp, their eyes dazzling. If you’d gasp, you’d probably enjoy this show. If, like me, you’re vaguely baffled that the interpretation panels for so many suits amount to perhaps 100 words in total, leaving you to wonder what the hell you’re supposed to take away from this bit of curation, you probably won’t like it.

I learned that from early in her career, Chanel preferred simple garments that were comfortable to wear, generally featuring white, cream and black—the latter formerly shunned as appropriate only for mourning. And, it seemed to me, she stayed that course for the remainder. She was a visionary genius, we’re constantly told, but we never quite explore why, or where anything besides her core ideas propagated outside her fashion house.

Chanel experimented with different materials now and again, but I didn’t get a sense of progression. She leant her brand to a perfume line, but as this was hived off into its own space in the exhibition, I didn’t really get an appreciation of whether (or how) the progression of that line influenced her fashion, and vice versa. There was a nice hand-written letter from the late Queen in the perfume section, displayed much more prominently than any description of Chanel’s unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the perfume business from its Jewish owner during the mid-century rise in antisemitism. This is surprising, as one might imagine that the latter gives greater insight into Chanel’s character and ‘manifesto’ than the latter.

During the war, Chanel temporarily closed her fashion house, and possibly became a spy, possibly for one side, possibly for the other, possibly for both. ‘We can’t be sure,’ says the exhibition, ‘as she never finished her autobiography.’

It’s hard not to see that sort of thing as a cop-out. Surely, we couldn’t be sure even if she had written an autobiography? Interrogation of secondary sources would be essential, but here we just brush over the whole episode, but ooh, here are some more dresses.

It feels like the exhibition promotes Chanel, the brand. It tells us repeatedly how wonderful Chanel is, inviting us to stand and stare, while minimising the bits of the story that might seem, at best, a bit awkward to modern eyes. It seems to lack critical analysis, offering little dissection of the brand’s projected image versus the reality.

Walking past a large ‘exhibition supported by Chanel’ logo on exiting gave me a sinking feeling. Was the support contingent on the lack of criticism? Is this actually just an advert, rather than merely feeling like one?

And mostly: does something which lacks criticism, lacks analysis, and lacks proper context really belong in a museum?

I’m not sure it does.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto continues at the V&A until 10 March, but it’s sold out, so you’re too late if you haven’t already got tickets.

This post was filed under: Art, Museums, Travel, , , .

‘Orchids: the beauty of Madagascar’

When I think of orchids, I think of my grandparents, who used to take great pride—and occasionally some frustration—in cultivating them on their windowsill.

Yet, they took on a slightly different meaning when I worked at the Department of Health in London. Much as fevered talk of Glyndebourne took over later in the year, February was dedicated to chatting about whether people ‘had seen the orchids yet’. The reference was to the annual orchid festival at Kew Gardens.

Until the other day, I’d never visited the orchid festival before. As a visit to London happened to coincide with the festival, and since I’m a member of a scheme which gives me free access to Kew Gardens, I thought I’d pop in.

I expected a sort of exhibition: some plants, perhaps with little interpretation boards explaining what was so remarkable about them. I expected to come away with at least a vague appreciation of what makes an orchid an orchid, perhaps having learned a thing or two.

The first thing I learned is that one does not simply ‘pop in’ to the orchid festival. This is a ‘book a time slot’, ‘stand in queue’, ‘bags searched on entry’ experience. If you’re not up for crowds, this isn’t for you: it’s a slow-moving snake of people, mostly looking at flowers through their phone cameras. Don’t expect to stand and admire or stop and contemplate: unless, of course, you temporarily detour off the route into a designated ‘quiet space’, the existence of which is a clue to the atmosphere in the main conservatories: expect piped-in music from Madagascar and plenty of crowd noise.

The second thing I learned is that this isn’t primarily an educational experience: it’s a gawp-at-that, take-a-photo-for-instagram experience. Don’t expect interpretation boards explaining the life cycle of the orchid; do expect orchids arranged to look like giant chameleons, birds, lemurs and the occasional turtle. Kew’s preferred description is ‘horticultural spectacle’, which is a bit like describing the Blackpool illuminations as a ‘photometric panorama’.

As I wandered around, I kept thinking that it felt a little like parading around a ‘plant zoo’: this was an environment created for the visitors’ entertainment, not to demonstrate the plants in their natural habitat nor really to educate to any meaningful degree. The concentration on Madagascar specifically felt a bit culturally off, too: I kept wondering what would be in the ‘UK’ greenhouses in the Botanical Gardens of Antananarivo.

But none of this takes away from the astonishing achievement of putting on some impressive orchid-based dioramas: it just isn’t at all what I expected it to be, and nor is it up my street. I won’t be rushing back next year, but don’t let that put you off visiting this year.

The orchid festival continues at Kew Gardens until 3 March.

This post was filed under: Art, Travel, , .


If someone was describing an exhibition which would be of minimal interest to me, this one at the V&A would superficially come close to the result. It’s mostly a fashion exhibition—not something that would usually appeal—heavily promoted as featuring outfits worn by pop music heroines, many of whom I wouldn’t recognise on the street. My sole reason for popping by was that I have complimentary access and happened to be in the area.

I was unexpectedly engrossed and impressed.

In terms of the actual exhibits, this was primarily a fashion exhibition. Its success came from using the exhibits to explore a wider story. In this case, the running theme was feminism and its relationship to the shifting meaning of the word ‘diva’.

We start with ‘diva’ in the 16th-century sense of ‘goddess’, as applied to opera singers—primarily sopranos—whose voices were so spectacular as to be considered virtually supernatural. This is also where we first encounter the subversive power of the ‘diva’: as those voices become the driver of ticket sales, works begin to be written around them, and the ‘divas’ attain power and independence far beyond that offered to a woman in virtually any other walk of life. Indeed, they attain more than the men: these ‘divas’ were not just singers, but captains of industry in their own rights, using their platform to promote ‘female’ issues. Yet, often, these ‘divas’ failed to find happiness in their own lives, the persona—the costume—becoming a kind of gilded cage.

And so the pattern repeated, from opera, to jazz, to theatre, to movies, to pop music. The same tropes crop up again and again, each time bringing forth viewpoints from the latest wave of feminism. Since the 1960s, but even more so in the fourth wave of feminism, one needn’t be a woman to be a diva: and so we see Elton John’s startling Louis XIV fiftieth birthday outfit.

It’s interesting to contemplate the layers of meaning in ‘diva’—given our collective history, it’s no surprise that there’s an element of disparagement in a term describing a woman who wields her own influence.

It’s an exhibition that provides plenty of facts, and plenty of provocations for reflection. If you’re interested in fashion, there’s a whole other layer of interest here that mostly passed me by. I also enjoyed the clever use of audio headsets, which responded to each exhibit: I might not have known all the featured artists by name, but I recognised more for their music. The audio also helped to illustrate the connection between fashion and music, and cleverly synced with film clips in the exhibition.

For all that: the thing that has stayed most with me from this exhibition is a huge looping timeline of feminism from the 1800s onwards, titled ‘Redefining the Diva’. The final point on the timeline, coming after fourth-wave feminism and dated 2022, is the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade. If ever there was a reminder that we still need feminism—and divas who push the boundaries—then that has to be it.

Diva continues at the V&A until 10 April.

This post was filed under: Art, Travel, , .

A bit of coaching

‘Take the National Express,’ sang The Divine Comedy, ‘when your life’s in a mess.’

‘It’ll make you smile.’

In 2017, my life was in a temporary mess due to train disruption between Newcastle and Leeds, when I needed to get to a meeting. I paid the princely sum of £4.00 for the privilege of a 2 hour and 40 minute odyssey via Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

Yesterday, thanks to industrial action on the railways, I paid £16.30 to do the same journey in reverse.

Few would relish spending the better part of three hours on a mildly nauseating coach, especially when a train will normally do it in half the time. The ticket for the cancelled train cost only £19.20, so even the price advantage seems minimal these days, at least on this route and on this day. On a train, there are no signs exhorting you to tip the driver, and nor does one feel a mild sense of guilt for failing to do so (who carries cash these days?)

But the coach is fine. I’d happily pay twice over for someone else to drive me up the A1(M) instead of having to navigate it myself in the dark and the rain. It even means I can have a glass of wine with dinner. Throw in a reasonably comfy seat, a charging socket and some free Wi-Fi and who can argue? The coach was also reasonably to timetable on both occasions.

It wouldn’t be my first choice, but on both occasions, it got me out of a hole. The Divine Comedy were right: it did make me smile.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

Wingfield Castle

Built in Hartlepool, the PS Wingfield Castle served as a Hull Estuary ferry from 1934 to 1974, just a few years before the Humber Bridge opened.

She was left to rot in London for a few years after that. In one of those mind-bending yet sound bits of maritime logic, concrete was poured into her bilges to prevent her from sinking due to leaks. In the early 1980s, Whitbread bought her intending to site a floating pub in Swansea, but had to abandon the idea when it became clear that she was too wide to fit through the marina’s gates.

In 1986, she returned to Hartlepool, where she has been lovingly restored, and is now exhibited at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

This post was filed under: Photos, Travel, .

Burns Monument

This post was filed under: Travel, .

New places to visit

The other day, I talked about how many of the EU’s most populous cities I’ve visited. But what about the UK?

As Citymonitor describes, it’s quite difficult to make a list of UK cities by population, so let’s assume we’re talking about the UK’s most populous urban areas as defined by Demographia, instead. And I can’t remember everything I did as a child, so let’s limit it to the last two decades.

By this measure, I’ve been to all the top five, and seven of the top ten. I haven’t been to Southampton-Portsmouth, Nottingham or Sheffield in the past twenty years. Perhaps I should try to correct that in 2024. I like to explore new cities.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, Travel.

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