Tag Archives: James Bond

The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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Slave to her Rhythm

It is a simple equation, sass plus attitude = SASSITUDE. There has been a roll call of ladies with an attitude through the years who have inspired and impressed – Mae West, Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Ute Lempur, Marlene Dietrich, Isabella Rossellini, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Frida Kahlo, P.J Harvey, Alison Goldfrapp, Annie Clark and of course Madonna – to name a select few.

But this week I would like to salute the disco ball that hovers around the Cosmos of the one and only, Ms. Grace Jones. In an era when people are all the more obsessed with age, I love the fact that Madame J just keeps on dancing. Ignoring the usual sneers, ‘she’s too old to wear that, to dance that way’ etc. As if suddenly you hit an age and you lose who you are. Dis-Grace keeps performing in underground night clubs, mixing music with Tricky and Eno, even hula-hooping for Her Majesty’s pleasure. I wonder if Ms. Jones has a portrait in the attic of Studio 54, as she looks no different to her Seventies’ self.

Grace Studio 54Apparently her svelte, curved figure is crafted by cycling across the British countryside. She also has an alleged penchant for red wine, prompting her mates to nickname her ‘Grapes’.

I remember having a re-occurring nightmare about Grace when I was a kid. At the time she was in a car advert, where an automobile bolted out of her mouth. I also recall she was a more fearsome James Bond villain than Jaws, Oddjob or any of the other cast of crooks, playing Mayday. Even making Roger Moore’s eyebrow rise higher than usual! A feat in its own right.

grace-jones mayday

I fulfilled one of my life ambitions by seeing her in concert a few years ago in Manchester. She was promoting the mesmerizingly mega music scape that was ‘Hurricane’. The album came complete with photography and art work composed by Banksy. A surge of surreal images of Grace working at a chocolate factory on the production line, the chanteuse sculpting an image of herself to be consumed commercially. Something I regretted did not make the shelves of Thornton’s or any other confectioners.

The performance that night in Manchester was wonderfully electric. With the diva arriving on stage on a cherry-picker, wearing just a black corset and a melee of Philip Treacy hats and fascinators. A unique style being modelled for each song. Pure, unadulterated Cabaret!

I’ve also seen other self-titled divas perform, who rely too, too heavily on theatrics and special effects to woo and wow their audiences. To distract from not really having too much talent, all concert entertainment by numbers, with audio and visuals modified for the DVD release. So ladies and gentleman, Ms. Grace Jones, long may she reign. This year on her birthday, May 19th, I raised a glass in honour of Amazing Grace.

grace

I will always be a slave to her rhythm. Now get me to a discothèque.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

If you have just joined us, the mortal bath and ten minutes hate are respectively re-reading and discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in chronological order (sort of).

from russia with love coronet book cover

Famous opening lines of novels often get bandied about in lists, but it wasn’t until I read From Russia With Love for the first time that I saw one that seems to have been overlooked among all the truths being universally acknowledged and weighing up of best and worst of times.

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Having thus garnered your attention, Ian Fleming doesn’t let it wander too far for the next 200 or so pages.  We soon learn that the body might have been, but sadly isn’t, for this formidable not-dead unclothed man is the distinctly non-Russian-sounding Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, ‘the Soviet organ of vengeance: of interrogation, torture and death’. A few, more detailed, yet taut chapters and we are apprised of the formidable team which that organisation has set against our man Bond. Chess master Kronsteen, the wolf-like cunning of Rosa Klebb and Grant himself, an animalistic turncoat driven to slaughter by the full moon. Not only to kill him, but to tear down his reputation and that of his Service. The trap will be sprung in Istanbul (Fleming having visited the city in 1955 on assignment for The Sunday Times). Bait is in the form of a defecting spy, the young-Greta Garbo-esque Tatiana Romanova and, almost as an afterthought, a Soviet cryptography machine.

The Bond of this book – who doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 – is a long way from the lithe instrument of Casino Royale. Admitting that he lacks sharpness after a summer cooped up in London, when back in the saddle he misses signs, disregards warnings, misjudges character and places friends, as well as himself, in harm’s way unnecessarily. The intricacy and eccentricity of SMERSH’s plot has been designed by Kronsteen to catch M’s attention, tempt James into danger and leave his body and reputation destroyed, but there is a sense throughout of Fleming poking fun at his creation. He doesn’t hesitate to use Bond’s own proclivities against him, not just the beautiful girl, but the need to ‘be a sport’, ‘see the game through’ and gamble recklessly. Without the protection of Istanbul’s station head and all-round force of nature, Darko Kerim, one suspects that England’s finest wouldn’t have made it out of the airport alive.

Readers drawn towards the softer side of Bond, especially as displayed in previous jaunt Diamonds Are Forever, may feel warmed by the renowned international playboy beginning this follow-up mooning over ex-paramour Tiffany Case:

He missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her.

But our protagonist is still operating in less enlightened times. M’s horror at the silliness of women who fall in love with a man’s picture gives way to chuckles over Bond’s Turkish wingman’s chaining of a naked girl to his kitchen table, before Tatiana demands that James beat her if she gets too fat for lovemaking post-defection. What fans of the film may recall as a titillating brawl between two Gypsy women is here much more brutal, although the participants do manage to rip the other’s clothes off at an early stage of the proceedings.

That said, Mr Bond is not quite the unrepentant caveman. There is a definite prominence accorded to the women that hold the fragile Bond together. From housekeeper May as adept with a boiled egg as she is at seeing off Communist agents, to the eternally chaste yet ‘most darling’ Lil Ponsonby, as well as Tatiana herself, who doesn’t let her all-conquering beauty hold her back from offering a warning about the assumed name of the man Bond takes for a fellow agent. The shame is his for how easily it is dismissed. And for all his air of ‘hey, sometimes these decorative non-men can be quite useful’, Fleming can’t take much joy in the slyness of Rosa Klebb. Scheming her way to Head of the Operations Department of the famed, feared, SMERSH and succeeding – where many men have tried and failed – in landing a poisoned blow on Bond, she lets the side down badly in one crucial area:

…the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ‘cello.

Growing weary of his secret agent, Fleming had left the ending ambiguous enough for this to be the final Bond if he chose. Perhaps it would have been too much for him to have his man killed off by a hottie.

Despite the certainty of all involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service that the operation is a trap, its nature and intended denouement remains obscured. Were it not for the executioner’s need, later to become a Bond film cliché, to spill the entire detail of the plot before making use of a weapon, our hero would have died at Grant’s hand none the wiser.

Old man, the story’s got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career ruined murders her and commits suicide… what a poke in the eye for the famous Intelligence Service! Their best man, the famous James Bond. What a shambles… What’s the public going to think? And the Government? And the Americans? Talk about security! No more atom secrets from the Yanks.

In the established narrative of post-War spy fiction, Ian Fleming is the hack, writing pulpy genre fiction that doesn’t stint on the girls, guns and gadgets and which pits our brave goodies against clearly distinguishable baddies. Set against him is the literary gent John le Carré, eschewing the clichés of the genre for subtly drawn commentary via characters that dwell in the grey areas. And while Donovan Grant’s crowing at Bond is what the mortal bath calls ‘typically Flemingian showing-off’, with it the author demonstrates that he knows exactly what Bond is and what he and his organisation’s place will be as the cynicism of the Cold War obliterates the idealism of World War II. From Russia With Love is a tight thriller, with no reduction in pace from earlier books. If you were to read just one Bond, I would advise that this be it. John F. Kennedy would no doubt agree. Not least because, for all the perceived glamour of Bond, there is far more overlap with the grey world of the George Smileys than that established narrative would allow for.

*

For a moment he thought nostalgically and unreasonably of the excitement and turmoil of the hot war, compared with his own underground skirmishings since the war had turned cold.

From Russia With Love (1957)

Connie Sachs:     It was a good time back then.
George Smiley:     It was a war, Connie.
Connie Sachs:    A war we could be proud of.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(from the screenplay filmed in 2012, based on the 1974 book)

It may seem perverse that, when for so many it was impossible to enjoy much of World War II, for a certain type and class of Englishman or woman those six years could be looked back on as a kind of peak.

verywellalone1

The famous David Low cartoon captioned, ‘Very Well, Alone!’, Churchill photographed wielding a Tommy gun, evenings dancing at The Ritz or Savoy as the bombs fell and sirens wailed. When compared to the Weltschmertz of the Cold War and the lost Empire, for some, the War years were an epoch to be quietly mourned.

churchill-met-tommy-gun

Fleming would later say of his wartime intelligence work that:

I could not have had a more interesting time.

Via Bond, he at least notes the unreasonableness of such nostalgia.

At the heart of From Russia With Love is a sleight-of-hand trick, but not the one perpetrated on Bond by SMERSH in revenge for his antics at Royale. It is the one created by Ian Fleming to show an outgunned and under-resourced Mi6 continuing to punch its weight on the world stage. On the page the chaps of the Service will vanquish the foe, when in reality that organisation was chasing its tail as The Cambridge Five affair unfolded. Typical establishment-pillar types, they had sold out their country and its allies to the Soviets, not for money, but due to unseemly ideological convictions. In contrast to the intellectuals and homosexuals (both equally suspicious characteristics to many English people of the time) of the Cambridge Five’s set, fiction gives us the serially heterosexual man-of-action, Bond, and the regularly cuckolded, anonymous Smiley.

Smiley is often called ‘the anti-Bond’, maybe because the coffee in his world is disgusting and the cigarettes are hand-rolled from a tin. Perhaps because le Carré made oft-quoted comments disparaging 007 as an ‘international gangster’ and ‘neo-fascistic’. While this may have been as a result of goading from Malcolm Muggeridge, on closer reading this opposite stance becomes nothing more than lazy sloganeering from reviewers seeking to manufacture a conflict. Neither Bond nor Smiley would be out-of-place in the other’s world, but it is doubtful that Bond would feel entirely at home in the scholarly Circus corridors, where:

…the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead (1961)

Instead Bond would be a ‘headhunter’ in le Carré’s vernacular, kept far away from M or Control and the real policy decisions. A bagman, tasked with the gritty, unacknowledgeable jobs. Ricki Tarr of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, flirting with danger and trying to get away with the girl, is perhaps closer to Bond than the toad-like George. The hand dealt to Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold provides a portend of Bond’s reduced future options. By his own admission, Bond is out of step with the ‘retired officers of the Indian Army’ that make up his colleagues, unsuited to the deft parry of the Cold War, lamenting the policy shift from stick to

carrots for all… At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more – only gums.

Condemnation from literary taste makers began before Fleming’s death and focussed on a perceived sadism, the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Yet after a fight at close quarters Bond takes time to lament that there has been

too much blood splashing about

and later muses that he

had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.

Blunt instrument he may be, but Bond is not without his own moral compass, however far off true north many of us would consider that it points. And though he is supposed to favour gentler methods, Smiley doesn’t prepare for an operation without thinking that he

had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.

(Call for the Dead)

Bereft of signature weaponry, Smiley has to utilise the cold currents of the River Thames to off an enemy, who was once a friend. Where the lines were once clearly marked, now no one can be sure where the loyalties of colleagues – or lovers, or spouses – really lie. Darko tells Bond that there is only one way to tell if Tatiana is being duplicitous but even after sleeping with her James remains unsure. Questioning constantly, yet Bond is happy to hand over his loaded gun to someone who talks the talk of the Service, despite his horror at that fellow’s use of ‘old man’ and Windsor knot. In a world of fictional Grants and real-life Philbys and MacLeans, where blending into the background is the key to survival, Bond is perilously visible. The inch-thick file at SMERSH, complete with photographs, would soon see him – like Smiley – pulled out of the field and desk-bound.

And after so many years, in contemplating this latest mission, even loyal servants are not without the occasional wobble:

…what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognise himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear…? What would he think of the dashing secret agent who was off across the world in a new and most romantic role – to pimp for England?

It’s a far cry from the days of The Great Game, as Smiley would probably agree:

Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves… He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Perhaps we get the secret agents we deserve. Bond of the books providing a tonic in the post-War bleakness, while by the time of the films London was beginning to swing again, although that was more a case of clever PR than fact of life outside of a select few post codes. It is fun to note that Bond and Smiley are both Chelsea-dwellers, back before SW4 was a fashionable address. Instead it was a sort of proto-Hackney, with reasonable rents and leafy squares amid the half-cleared bomb sites. Home is only somewhere to lay one’s hat, when the pull of foreign shores is a constant itch:

…while he ate, [Bond] gazed down at the cool mirror of the Lake of Geneva. As the pine forests began to climb towards the snow patches between the beautifully scoured teeth of the Alps, he remembered early skiing holidays.

Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro.

(Call for the Dead)

For both Fleming and le Carré, life is elsewhere, a decade and change before the Pistols will decry the ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, the narcolepsy is already pulling down the eyelids. The reality of that solo stance against Nazism: only possible due to the financial muscle of the Americans and with total victory unable to hold the Empire together, was a bitter pill forced down by the British Establishment through successive crises of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Facing life as a junior partner of the CIA, in a more subservient position than when they chummily helped him out at Royale, one might surmise that Bond would prefer a quick death at the hands – or foot – of Rosa Klebb while Smiley would choose to end his days in a dusty German library.

Bond’s reading en route to Istanbul is The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, who himself knew something of the power of the spy novel:

Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them, but they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.

It is interesting to wonder what we would feel about Bond if From Russia With Love had been the last one in the series, as Fleming considered. By the time the Berlin Wall went up Fleming – like M, Control, Smiley and Bond himself – was a relic and from here, Bond’s villains and escapades move further away from the uncomfortable truths of the Cold War. Both writers know that our secret agent fantasies are ludicrous, less casinos and models than drab suburbs and shop girls. So one gives them to us anyway, amplified, while the other downplays them, revealing major themes through everyday banalities. Rather than setting them in opposition, each depiction of the secret warriors should be seen to compliment the other, as essential records of SIS’s journey from Enigma via double agents to NSA intercepts.

James Bond will return… as our review series reaches Dr No… SOON!

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Moonraker by Ian Fleming

I am writing about James Bond and I can almost hear your groans from here. What is there that can possibly be left to be written about Britain’s favourite secret agent that hasn’t already been said a million times before, by feminists, by film reviewers, even by distinguished literary gents? I thought it had all been covered so completely that it could be taken as a given until, screening Goldfinger at Christmas with friends, someone confessed to only then understanding what the Austin Powers films were poking (ooh, baby!) fun at.

My suggestion of a Bond film after Christmas dinner was testament to how far I have travelled since my teenage days. Back then, the festive Bond would usually see me with head buried in a book, occasionally glancing up to sneer disdain at another cheesy line from Roger Moore as my family groaned and chuckled around me. I thought Bond was dreadful, so hackneyed in its clichés – the women only sassy up to a point to make the inevitable surrender greater sport for the hero, the gadgets, the comedy characters – that it was better off ignored. I thought I knew it backwards but didn’t enjoy the knowledge.

Until Casino Royale, that is.

The vow to never watch another Bond film was taken after witnessing the Brosnan incarnation waterskiing down the side of a glacier in Die Another Day. Despite the absence of anything with teeth in the scene, that was my ‘jumping the shark‘ moment. After all the incredulity I had thrilled over as a child – the human Jaws biting through a cable car’s wires, death wielded by bowler hat, spiked shoe or gold paint – I could bear no more.

But Casino Royale was intriguing. A good story well told, unlike some of the others, needing no gimmicks to distract attraction from plot holes you could drive an invisible car through. Daniel Craig’s Bond a vulnerable, often wrong, sometimes out-of-control human being rather than a wise-cracking caricature. Talk was of how this was as the author had intended, the producers returning to the source material having receiving a Jason Bourne-inspired scare. Post 9/11, it was felt, we needed more humility from our secret agents and the Broccoli family – always astute readers of an audience’s moods – delivered.

Softened up by that cinematic experience, it was perhaps inevitable that when a copy of the book came into my hands via a secondhand store in Tokyo, I would fall for Bond faster than a mini-skirted SMERSH agent sent to kill him. As ever, the rogue’s charms proved difficult to resist. So when I was offered a windfall in the shape of an almost complete set about to be thrown out, I grabbed at them. With that pleasing old book aroma and cover art calculated to have any teenage boy’s blood racing – girls! guns! rockets! – this was my chance to see if the rest of the series could live up to Casino Royale’s promise of a more appealing, albeit less charming, Bond.


What you know are to become key elements of the films already exist in the book. Bond’s love of gadgetry and the high life are evident, whether that is fine tailoring, his Ronson lighter for use on his own blend of cigarettes, or the little flat off the King’s Road. He drives a Bentley, rather than an Aston Martin, an older, classic model he takes pride in racing against foreign engineering, at least until he totals it.

Yet while aiming for effortlessness in all this acquisition, Bond is only one loss at cards away from ruin. We see him chafing at the daily routine and ploughing half-heartedly through the paperwork just like any other office worker, although in the privileged position afforded to a senior civil servant, he is no idle playboy. When away from London on operations, he has a Leica camera in one pocket and a Beretta in the other but perhaps more telling are the gadgets he lacks: having to drive to the next town to telephone allies in Scotland Yard or waiting for essential information to arrive by telegram.

Also lacking is any contact with anyone he isn’t working with or for. Perhaps this lack of companionship is compensated for by being surrounded by women, of course possessed of a beauty that mere mortals can only dream of. Whether it is the carefully selected waitresses of the gambling club M frequents, the steely Secret Service secretaries, or a ‘severely competent’ police woman, the lucky fellow rarely encounters a plain woman. Yet central female characters Gala Brand and Loelia Posonby – though crazily named – are also blessed with a quiet strength, essential to keeping the battered and broken Bond on his feet throughout the action.

Though Fleming laments that Posonby is approaching an age where:

Unless she married soon, Bond thought for the hundredth time, or had a lover, her cool air of authority might easily become spinsterish and she would join the army of women who had married a career.

Perhaps this is not the terrible fate he makes it out to be, and it is arguable if a quick tumble with 007 would be a better one, especially as he is facing a similar destiny. His own prospects for a long and happy retirement seem slim, after all. Although contemplating certain death with hopelessness after torture and near defeat, he never questions the rights and wrongs of the power the Service wields over his life. He is good at the essentials of his job, his boss is decent, that is enough. Bond is far more of a bastard than you remember, quite a lot rougher around the edges and unafraid to fight dirty if circumstances dictate. Able to pass with the Lord Basildons of this world, but not quite of them:

Bond knew that there was something alien and un-English about himself. He knew that he was a difficult man to cover up. Particularly in England.

Perhaps it is his misfortune that the exotic locations so fundamental to the films are passed over for this tale, which largely happens within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover in the usually sleepy South of England. Moonraker’s plot delivers such atomic age fears as a rogue scientists, cities laid waste by the most powerful rocket ever built and an unsettling yet impolitic mistrust of those who have gone from enemies to allies in the blink of an eye.

It is a cracking read, belting along at a great pace and lending a warmth and a human side to its characters that you would perhaps not believe existed if you had only watched the films. You may think you know all there is to know about James Bond, but you won’t until you experience him on the page.

ten minutes hate and the mortal bath are reviewing all of the James Bond novels, (sort of) in order. Track down the others here:

Casino Royale (tmb)

Live and Let Die (tmb)

Moonraker (tmh)

Diamonds Are Forever (tmb)

From Russia With Love – COMING SOON!

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An accidental tourist

I’m leaving because the weather is too good.  I hate London when it’s not raining

-Groucho Marx

This morning, after a most enjoyable Full English (exquisite black pudding, sorry veggies), I left the Aged Relatives at the station and wondered what to do with the rest of a beautifully sunny Sunday on which I had no further plans for the day.  Deciding upon a big long walk was the easy option.  A quick look at Google Maps on the phone and I was off as quickly as my hungover legs could carry me.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled across blogging gold, in the form of probably the most inappropriately named block of flats in the universe (click on the thumbnail for more detail):

House

Aesthete and purveyor of fine wit, Noel Coward, numbers among his many triumphs a note-perfect performance in The Italian Job as the patriotic gang boss Mr. Bridger.  Aesthete and purveyor of fine drawings, Aubrey Beardsley, created beautifully erotic illustrations for a number of  the most notorious publications of the Art Nouveau period, including Oscar Wilde’s Salome. That noise you can hear as you gaze at the signs affixed to these particular examples of concrete brutalism is the sound of two meticulous men spinning like turbines in their respective graves.  At least, I think that and I like brutalist architecture.

Wandering on I came across this scene:

River

… containing plenty for me to muse upon, the odd but strangely mesmirising MI6 building – star of nearly as many Bond films as Judi Dench – it appears to be the kind of Art Deco palace a 30s Hollywood mogul would have had built, but is really an 80s pastiche.  It is just possible to see the exposed remains of the huge mudflats which Charles Dickens would have known before the Embankment was built to reclaim some of the riverside.  That provided extra space for the new-build flats seen in the background, with the cranes suggesting yet more are being added, because London has next to no yuppie flats, of course.

There were parts of this walk which were very familiar, both from pictures and previous wanderings, but next up was a part of town which was a beautiful surprise even for a cynical and embittered Londoner like myself.  Victoria Tower Gardens has it all: plenty of space for reclining on the lawn, river views and fresh air, as well as interesting sculptures and statues to break up the sense of monotony that a town-dweller can feel on looking at a wide expanse of grass.  First up was an elaborate bit of Gothic masonry – which on closer inspection turned out to be the Buxton Memorial Fountain – built to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.  One of the original castings of Rodin’s sculpture of The Burghers of Calais is also located in the park, having been bought for us by the British Government.  See, they don’t always spend our money on tat!

This stroll through the park brought me somewhere I hadn’t visited since a distant school trip, or walked to since the ill-fated 2003 Iraq War protest march: my Nation’s Parliament.  Naturally no troughing MPs in view, as it was a Sunday and they are also on recess for a little while longer.  Perhaps taking inspiration from this statue of Richard I, who spent less than six months of his ten-year reign in England?

Richard

And then we come to my favourite view of London, the dome of St Paul’s as seen from the South Bank:

View

Here it is looking picture-postcard perfect, glinting in the sunshine as if impersonating Wren’s source of inspiration, St Peter’s in Rome.  There are more stunning images here, including another of my favourites (if you scroll down a bit): the dome enveloped in cloud and lit up by searchlights during the blitz of 1941.

By now the urge to sleep off my breakfast was winning out over any desire for further wanderings, so it was time to hop onto the bus for home.  Things learnt were many and it was heart-warming to act like a new arrival to this city I have called home for most of the last decade.  All for the price of two bus fares and a bottle of water.  Sometimes the best holidays are those spent on familiar territory.

So now off to snooze while agreeing with that other cheerleader for the old metropolis, Samuel Johnson:

By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show

All photographs taken by Julia

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