Monday, March 11, 2013

A London Weekend

However long you live here, London always throws up something new, surprising and fabulous. It’s diversity doesn’t stop at having the largest number of foreign communities resident - every Londoner’s specific interests are catered to in depth as well, allowing for wonderful crossovers, mashups and discoveries.

So this last weekend was a bit of a London mash-up for me. It started, as all good weekends do, on Friday evening. A friend treated me to a play at the National Theatre: This House by James Graham. This is not the sort of play I am usually interested in - contemporary, and about 70’s politics and House of Parliament procedures. My usual theatrical interests are Classics (deep!) and Stars (shallow!) - I recently took in James McAvoy’s Macbeth, covering both - so This House was completely off my radar until I saw a trailer for it at the cinema. It looked amazing! It turns out that it’s a National Theatre hit and had returned for a second run at the larger Olivier theatre.

We were lucky to get great seats in the auditorium. The staging has a block of parliamentary style benches on stage, and some lucky audience members get to sit on these - the blocks are on two of the Olivier’s revolves and swivel round for scenes set in the House for parliamentary votes. Most of the time they are flat on and the front of the stage becomes the Whips’ offices as they plot and scheme (Tories) or desperately try to keep things afloat (Labour).

The play covers events from the fall of Ted Heath to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, through the eyes of the Whips. The Tories are blasé, urbane, worldly, and have seen it all before. Born to rule. Witty, but prone to bullying their newbies and snobbish. They become increasingly nervous of the top dog as Thatcher entrenches her leadership (initially portrayed as a weird fluke they expected not to last).

The Labour side show mainly working class types and accents (and the only women MPs in the play). The men swear like sailor’s parrots and then apologise to the women, who get annoyed by the apologies. Wilson’s government had a wafer-thin margin and was expected to fall within weeks - however, it lasted 4.5 years, and the play shows the desperate lengths the Labour whips went to to keep it all together (and the lengths the Tories went to to take them down). It’s all very funny and engrossing but one is aware that Thatcher wins in the end and changes everything (the play ends with a recording of her famous victory speech in 1979).

We repaired afterwards for a debrief and cocktail at Skylon’s bar. I’ve not eaten in this restaurant in its current incarnation (I did before when it was run by a celebrity chef) - the room itself is so much more beautiful and glamorous now after the Royal Festival Hall refurb. It also benefits from the fifties revival trend. We quaffed fab cocktails, surrounded by Italians - so many of them around in London at the moment. Our discussions turned on the Parliamentary news of the moment - the spectacular and catastrophic fall from grace of Coalition minister Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce, dubbed “the Clytemnestra of Clapham”. Indeed this is a greek tragedy, with both parties being sentenced to a jail term for perverting the course of justice today (over a speeding ticket in 2003!), but all their family dirty laundry has been fully aired in the press over the last few months. The Huhnes’ marital home was actually quite near to me, I’m familiar with their street in a “would love to live there’ kind of way. I also lived for many years with someone who went back and forth to Europe frequently, and would no doubt have known the stretch of road Huhne was caught speeding in (luckily, my housemate had a driver to ferry her to and from the airport so speeding was never an issue).

So far, so usual for me but Saturday would see me yanked right out of my usual tracks.

My niece is in a women’s eights team (Cantabridgian juniors) and was booked to race in the Womens’ Eights Head of the River Race (WEHORR) on Saturday. I’m vaguely aware of the Oxford/Cambridge boat race at the end of March but it appears that the whole of March is a big racing month on the Thames for rowers. My knowledge of rowing is not extensive (I called them ‘paddles’ and was put firmly right by a rowing mother - they are correctly called “blades”).

I met my brother and sister-in-law at the Battersea Affordable Art Fair where they had just made a purchase, and we taxi’d to the finish line at Putney Bridge just as the first boats arrived.

There were around 330 boats taking part. A ‘head’ race means they aren’t all actually starting at the same time - they are let go in batches in number order, so are racing against the clock. Coxes and teams use “Cox Boxes” to monitor their progress. The race goes downstream from Chiswick to Putney (the Oxford/Cambridge race goes upstream but timed to start on an incoming tide).

There was a great atmosphere amongst the crowds of supporters, and the sight of all the boats on the Thames was magnificent. we were treated to watching them sprint for the finish line in front of us and then double back past us to where they disembarked.

It took hours though for them all to come through, and the temperature noticeably dipped throughout the afternoon. After my niece’s team sailed past (they did well and were rightly proud of their achievement in their first big race, even with a broken cox box), we supporters all repaired to The Duke’s Head pub for a very late lunch.

The Duke’s Head is a quintessential rowers’ pub, and makes the most of its prime position on the start line of the Oxford/Cambridge boat race with a magnificent dining room - soaring ceiling and massive windows on three sides overlooking the river - and racing paraphernalia as decoration. The pub nails its colours firmly to the mast with its walls a Cantabridgian light blue.

Lunch/dinner was a hugely welcome wild boar burger with triple fried chips and a bowl of “allotment vegetables” - chanterey carrots, savoy cabbage and french beans. I toasted my niece’s team’s performance with a glass of sauvignon blanc, even as said team was whisked back to Cambridge thoroughly exhausted from their 4 hours on the icy river.