Posts Tagged With: london

A Portrait of the Modern Artist as a Young Time Lord (part two)

Oh, the man loved his wheatfields.

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I’m no art critic, but there are two things that jump out at me every time I look at this. One is the cloud formation. I don’t know what sort of day it was when he painted this, but they’re billowing. It’s a swirling mass of cumulus, dancing in some sort of abstract Rorschach formation, enticing you to see what you want to see. To the right, there are the cypresses, tall and dark and imposing like the edges of a sinister forest, the dark against the light.

Sadly, there is no sign of a gigantic chicken. But that’s OK.

We were in the National Gallery, which (you will remember) was where they airlifted the TARDIS in the opening scenes of ‘Day of the Doctor’. The Doctor (resplendent in tweed) strides across Trafalgar Square to a slightly embarrassed Kate Stewart, who apologises, before they all go off to look at some pictures. It’s like an episode of Millionaire Matchmaker. (The gallery’s interior, I’m told, was in Cardiff. Do not make the mistake of gallivanting round London trying to find it. That’s something that happens in The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, and that it doesn’t end in tears is largely thanks to John Barrowman.)


We’d really only gone to the National to see the Van Gogh. We were, as you might imagine after Friday, rather weary of looking at pictures. Plus it was a Saturday, and the place was crammed full of tourists all crowding round The Hay Wain. Within five minutes, Thomas had had enough. “This is boring,” he said. “It’s just paintings of people and stuff.”  Call it an autism reaction: he responds better to the abstract, which enables you to form your own impressions in a way that the concrete does not. I can see his point. Even the Constable is basically a horse pulling a cart across a river, which no one wanted to buy until it was revered by a Frenchman.

It made me think about the value of art, and whether things are considered great because great minds think them great. If someone of influence and authority takes a particular shine to something that was previously considered mediocre, isn’t that a fast-track to the sort of validation that it might otherwise have taken decades to earn? Put it this way. If someone like…oh, I don’t know, Philip Pullman was to talk about the merits of ‘Boom Town’, wouldn’t that push it up the polls a bit? Or if Hilary Mantel was to tell you that ‘The Twin Dilemma’ was among her favourite stories, wouldn’t Baker’s cluttered debut merit something of a re-appraisal? If people of literary talent and assumed knowledge (and perhaps this is why I don’t listen to critics, who typically show evidence of one, but not the other) argue in favour of something, perhaps they influence our own views.

Perhaps it would explain the enduring appeal of the Mona Lisa, a painting whose reputation I’ve never really understood. There are many theories: the identity of the girl in the picture, the enigmatic smile, the eyebrows (or lack thereof). People tell me it’s because Da Vinci was doing things with form that no one had done before, which is venturing into an area of art criticism I don’t really want to visit, largely because I’ll be out of my depth. Perhaps they’re right, but I’ve never been convinced. It’s a pretty painting, for sure, and I’ve not seen it in the flesh (oil. Whatever) but I wonder how much of its immortality may be ascribed to people telling you it’s great. Art is subjective but it is generally agreed that the Mona Lisa is wonderful. Citizen Kane is similarly bold and innovative, and enormously influential, but also rather dull – nonetheless, if you tell people it’s the greatest film ever made with sufficient regularity they will, eventually, start to believe it.


The main entrance to the impressionists’ wing was closed, so we had to hunt for The Sunflowers. They sit on a wall facing north-west, this unassuming bunch of dried-up flora, a still half-life, “somewhere between living and dying; half-human as they turn to the sun”. There’s a reverence to them, something bold and tortured that jumps out as you stare at the thing, a sense of awe somewhat undermined by the people with iPhones. But I took one anyway, just to say that I’d done it.

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“You should have done a selfie,” said Emily, not entirely seriously. “That way people would know you’d actually been, rather than just taking a photo off the internet.”

“I’d need a stick,” I said. “You know I can’t stand selfie sticks.”

I went to Philadelphia a few years back; did I ever tell you that? The art gallery there – arguably more famous for the ascending staircase that leads up to its entrance than anything inside – houses several Gilbert & George works, a couple of Warhols – oh, and this.


This is the repetition of the third version (the original third hangs in Munich), while the one at the National is the (original) fourth. (In Whovian terms, that’s presumably Katy Manning impersonating Jon Pertwee.) It looks rather unassuming on screen, the oils crystallised as pixels, a tribesman missing his soul. Seeing things like this up close is unique because you can get close enough to see the brushwork, the hours of labour, the years of psychosis. And yet I wonder how much of my love of Van Gogh and his childish scribbling is thanks to Doctor Who. Is it possible to appreciate the birth of impressionism for what it is and simultaneously be indifferent to the Lisa del Giocondo? Perhaps it isn’t. It’s times like this I wish I really understood art, so I could at least make you think I knew what I was talking about.

There is something rather special about sunflowers, I’ll give you that. They are used to striking effect in the finale of Everything is Illuminated, in which Jonathan Foer arrives at his destination, deep in the heart of Ukraine, having spent most the running time searching for the woman who saved his grandfather during World War II. Emily and I saw the film back in 2005 (being perhaps the only people in the country to do so, given the box office ratings) and one thing that struck us about it was Elijah Wood, who had spent much of the last decade playing a Hobbit. We’d already seen him earlier that year in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a film we often joke about not having seen, which you’ll understand if you know the plot) and now, it seemed, he’d finally shrugged off the last vestiges of potential typecasting, free to be his own man again. He sits in the cottage, eyes glistening a little as Augustina’s sister muses on the nature of journeys and the significance of the heirloom he carries. “The ring is not here because of you,” she says eventually. “You are here because of the ring.”


Oh, and it was all going so well.

By the time we finished at the National Gallery everyone was about ready to come home. We’d spent the morning at the Science Museum, which houses more than you can reasonably examine in a single day, so we concentrated on the home life exhibition in the basement (Betamax! Pong! SPEAK AND SPELL!) before trooping up to the aviation centre. It was humbling, somehow, being surrounded by all those ancient engines and prototypes, strolling across the shoulders of giants. Amelia Johnson was in residence; she’s looking pretty sprightly for a woman of 112.

The second floor houses technology (antique mobiles! An original copy of Windows! A DRAGON 32!). There was an exhibit about the history of TV. Daniel was watching the coronation. So naturally I did this.

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I asked Daniel for his favourite part of the trip, which turned out to be a tie between the youth hostel we visited and the Tower of London, which we’d skirted the day before. It sits on the north bank of the Thames, not far from Fenchurch Street, brown and somehow unassuming. It’s not even much of a tower, really, at least not in the sense that Barad Dur is a tower, or Orthanc is a tower, or Stark Tower is – well, you get the idea. It’s more a fortress, which I suppose is the point.

“So why did you swear?” said Josh, as we strolled around the square outside.

“I didn’t swear,” I said. “That’s its name. The Tower of London, or the Bloody Tower.”
“So we can say ‘bloody’ without it being swearing?”
“Yes, but don’t make a habit of it.”

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If you read this blog regularly you’ll know I have a habit of tying up entrances and exits, and you’ll also remember that the Tower is now the new UNIT HQ, as visited by Amy and the Doctor in ‘The Power of Three’, (it was actually filmed at Caerphilly, but it still counts). It’s also host to one of my favourite scenes in ‘Day of the Doctor’, in which Jemma Redgrave is seen relaxing on a bench, gazing at Tower Bridge. “The ravens are looking a bit sluggish,” she says. “Tell Malcolm they need new batteries.”

I was thinking about this as we wandered around, slightly frustrated that I seem to be the only one who remembered it. It’s an excuse to watch DOTD again, I suppose, not that I need one. It remains a high point, infused as it is with an invigorating sense of wonder, understated (but carefully crafted) narrative and the best use of eyebrows in the history of the show. It was an episode that made me appreciate Doctor Who all the more, at the end of a year of borderline overkill (let’s not discuss the after-show party, please) and given my current sense of weariness about the whole thing, it’s one I often go back to. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about: surrounded by people who watch the show but don’t necessarily understand it, who just want to take photos and run…perhaps I’m a residential bird, tired and sluggish and in need of new batteries.

“Ooh, look!” cheered Emily, as we passed by one of the best views of the Tower, with a bunch of visitors all snapping away with selfie sticks. “It’s the London ravens, boys!”
“What on earth are you doing?” I said.”Those are pigeons.”
“I know,” she replied. “I’m just trying to confuse the tourists.”


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A Portrait of the Modern Artist as a Young Time Lord (part one)

“I do not think,” my friend Jay once said to me, over a network connection, “that you can possibly write me an email with the subject line ‘Empty shells, ghosts’ and escape with your dignity intact. Unless you were planning on using up your entire 1998 stock of irony now, I think you might want to reconsider.”

At the time, I was hurt. Retrospectively he was quite correct, and I wonder what Jay would say if he could see the rubbish title I’ve given this post. Oh, it fits, of course – but aren’t you, he’d say, in that Estuary English voice he has, in danger of devolving into that pretentious idiot you once were? To which I’d shrug and say “Perhaps he never really left”.

Anyway, artistic pretension is kind of the topic. And we’ll start here.

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What was I doing at the Tate Modern? We were on a Cultural Visit. I’d pulled the boys out of school (all pre-approved, of course) and we went on one of Emily’s Grand Excursions, all timetabled and planned to the last detail so as to avoid long periods of inactivity and waiting around – not because either of us are impatient but because the boys get restless when they have to queue. It’s the way of things for us, and something I’ve learned to tolerate. It was the reason we didn’t go to the Natural History Museum and the start of the chain of events that led to me threatening to delete Thomas’s Xbox profile.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the converted power station. Visiting the place was an experience – a good one, by and large, but the sort of thing that has you scratching your head. I’ve decided, in the first instance, that I will never understand Marcel Duchamp.

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I mean, it’s a bloody toilet. I don’t care that removing it from its intended setting and labelling it ‘art’ gets it a glass case. If I was to nail a door handle to a piece of chip board and call it art, would you give me a wing to myself? I don’t bloody think so. What’s that? A snow shovel? Oh, very well. Just let me deal with the burglars first.

One floor down, and we found a room full of enormous Polaroids where people’s heads had been exchanged with different fruits. It’s supposed to be a statement on rejoining with nature. It looked like something I do in Fireworks for the sake of a cheap pun. This person had a gallery to themselves. A gallery! In another room, we found twelve TV sets, each displaying a different piece of looped footage; the installation was entitled Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades, and included scenes from Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (thought to be the first film ever made) through to Dancer in the Dark, a film I’d hoped never to see again. Bjork’s lovely, but I still don’t understand how David Morse ever got his equity card.

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On the other hand, there were some wonderful pieces. They have Warhol, which Thomas (who developed something of an interest after a school topic) refused to believe was genuine. They have a large, primal-coloured Lichtenstein taking up most of a wall. They have a magnificent stack of radios, floor to ceiling, designed to emulate information overload. And in a darkened screening room they were running loops of Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen, which was simultaneously  bizarre and, I think, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.

Oh, and they have this. It is thirty feet high and it reminds me of the last time I had to clean the bathroom wall.

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“I mean, seriously,” I said. “You could have done that.”

Josh glanced up at the thing, clearly interested. “Maybe it’s supposed to be a cyclone.”

“…You know, it does look uncannily like a cyclone.”

“Or my bedroom.”


What does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well we’ll get to that another day, when I’ve processed the myriad ideas I have in my head about how to reconcile Doctor Who and modern art. In the meantime, we should be grateful that the TV show was never quite so pretentious.


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We’re going on a bear hunt

Truthfully? I’ve never really liked London.

Oh, I know that all human life is to be found there. I know it’s a combination of stunning architecture, iconic landmarks and urban regeneration juxtaposed with crumbling hilltops and windows jammed with mesh. I know the London Underground is a masterpiece of engineering and transport logistics. It’s just that I remember being stuck in one of those tube carriages at 5:35 on a hot summer’s evening, surrounded by a mass of hot, sweaty commuters, and wondering what sort of money people had to be paid in order to actively volunteer to do this on a daily basis.

And that pretty much sums up how I feel about the place. It’s just so busy. It’s not that I mind a bit of hustle and bustle. It’s just that we tend to only visit the busy parts, because we’re inevitably doing the tourist thing. The desire to tackle Hamleys on a Saturday in December with four children in tow is perhaps a clearer sign of madness than hairs on the palm of your hand, but after our experience a couple of weeks ago I never want to walk down Regent Street again. Perhaps it’s a sign of age when you suddenly find yourself put off by crowds and traffic. Perhaps not. In either event I find myself getting slightly over-awed by the parts we visit, and in need of smaller, quieter metropolitan areas. Or perhaps this is just a colossal misjudgement on my part. Perhaps, if you live in London yourself, you’ll tell me I’m just doing it wrong, an admonishment I accept willingly.

But you find stuff. A couple of months ago I wrote a reasonably coherent piece for Metro about Doctor Who‘s London locations, cobbled together from a couple of websites and with input from Gareth. One of these days I really ought to do a decent walking tour of The Famous Bits – the steps the Cybermen descended during ‘The Invasion’ (almost but not quite at St. Paul’s), or the dockside locations for ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, at least the part that hasn’t been rebuilt. Even ignoring Doctor Who, the boys need to see London, because photos on Google Maps don’t really cut it; so we went. There was no dinosaur hovering over Westminster – we’d arrive about 140 years too late – so I added one last night.


Besides, Emily had a grand plan, which involved Paddington Bear. If you’ve been following movie news recently you’ll know that Paddington has been in the media quite a bit, given his transition from line drawing to stop motion model to CG character, with voice provided by Michael Hordern / almost Colin Firth / Ben Whishaw. The film itself (which I have yet to see) looks to be a combination of riotous slapstick and unnecessary meanness: certainly their re-enactment of the bathroom scene in an early trailer didn’t exactly me endear me to the thing, while Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist – inserted for dramatic tension – seems a little excessive. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “‘I’m going to stuff you, bear!’ Ah yes, that’s the Paddington we know and love.”


When I was six, we went to visit a Harley Street doctor for reasons that now evade me, and I remember a huge statue of Paddington Bear at the station that towered over me like some sort of gigantic behemoth. In reality it’s only about five feet tall. A little perspective can be a wonderful thing. Remembering how big it seemed when I was small made me wonder how my children were viewing the day, and how they will remember it later. It’s the original, of course, but it was only one of a number of statues we visited the other week; about fifty of them have been scattered around London as part of the Paddington Trail, and Emily had planned out the day so that we got to see ten. Many of these were centred around Little Venice, but that was fine, because it was quiet. There were futuristic robots. There was a London Mayor. And there was one that looked a little like Sully from Monsters Inc.



Little Venice is a hive of canal-side walkways and bars and bridges and contemporary offices, the sort of place ripe for a Who location shoot, presumably involving the Judoon. It has a barge that has its own bookstall. Outside one of the pavement cafes, I found this.


Which has nothing to do with anything, except that anyone who actually reads God Is In The Detail (as opposed to thinking “Oh dear, he’s off again” and skipping to the next entry) will know about my banana conspiracy. In the meantime, just because I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, here’s a picture of the War Doctor in his earlier years.



I heard just yesterday that one of the statues (the one in Shoreditch) has been decapitated, which is pointless and unfortunate, although it did make me think of Omega in ‘The Three Doctors’.

The Paddington movie has somewhat tenuous connections with Doctor Who, of course. Two of the actors therein have actually played the Doctor (Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent, who played him for just under a minute). Hugh Bonneville starred alongside Matt Smith in ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ – an episode so poorly written that even the appearance of Amy Pond in a pirate costume seemed dull. Michael Gambon (‘A Christmas Carol’) pops up in a voiceover cameo, and Imelda Staunton, who plays Aunt Lucy, also voiced the computer in ‘The Girl Who Waited’. Nicole Kidman has never appeared in Doctor Who, but she was married to one of the world’s most prominent scientologists – a group who manage to make the more outspoken conspiracy theorists on Gallifrey Base seem relatively sane by comparison. (I’m grasping at straws now, but at the risk of legal action, so are the people who try and justify scientology.)

Still, just outside Greenwich Observatory, there’s this.

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We have Peter Capaldi to thank for this design. “Silly,” said Gareth. “Everyone knows Daleks can’t climb bears.”

Greenwich is the home of the Cutty Sark, and the Meridian Line, which you have to pay to see, although there’s an unofficial one that intersects the path outside the observatory. There is also a spectacular twenty-four hour clock that Joshua found.


But we’d gone to see the bear. It’s a testament to how amazing my wife is that she planned an entire chunk of the day – which included two tube journeys and a half-hour trip on the Docklands Light Railway – just to get up to the top of the hill. “But the journey’s fun,” she enthused. “I love the DLR. It’s like you’re actually driving the train!”

Indeed it is; it also took us through parts of London I’d never seen before, such as Canary Wharf, visible here from the viewing platform, and complete with added Daleks.


You get a sense of grounding up on that hill. It feels chronologically significant, as if you’re standing on the edge of the world, or perhaps on the edge of a new one. You become aware that some of the greatest minds in human history have walked that path. There is a lump of rock in the museum entrance (right next to the astronaut bear, designed by Sandra Bullock) that is “possibly the oldest thing you’ll ever touch”. The fleeting sense of your own mortality and insignificance when you think just how vast the universe actually is was both impressive and not a little humbling. You realise how every day is a gift, a blank page as new and fresh as an unwrapped notebook, the cellophane discarded carelessly on the living room floor. And then I started getting Dead Poet’s Society scenes playing in my head and I knew it was time to leave.

We trooped back down to the station, and got the tube to Waterloo, where we got to do this.



The underground is quick, but the bus is far more fun, and it was one of those glorious winter’s afternoons where the sky is just the right colour and the light is perfect. (Any photographer will tell you that taking photos at midday is asking for trouble, and that early mornings and late afternoons are usually much better if you want decent lighting.) I managed to get a few photos on that bus, in between gawping at the Santa fun run and telling the boys to sit down, but you’ve all seen the Big Ben clock tower before, so here it is with the pig spaceship from ‘World War Three’.



Similarly, Trafalgar Square got invaded by forestry in series 8, so I’ve added a tree to Nelson’s Column.


Hamleys was the last stop, and we spent two hours there. I don’t really want to talk about it. Ever. The promise of a gigantic toy shop (and spending money) was a carrot, and we had relatively good behaviour as a result, so in the end you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. Suffice to say I think we probably went during a quiet part of the day, and that was enough. But I did notice some curious model placement in the Hornby railway layout, and I’m guessing this can’t be a coincidence.


The boys all giggled, except for Edward, who is only a year old and doesn’t get the joke. But that’s OK, because we bought him this. It makes noises and everything, and he loves it.


Like I said, you have to find stuff.

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