Return to Sender. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

To Buckingham Palace today with my Mum today to view the State Rooms and Royal Gifts exhibition for our delectation on the annual summer opening. I’ve been fortunate to attend the private views for previous exhibitions such as Fashioning a Reign, the 53 Coronation exhibit and The Queen’s Diamonds. 

The curation of all the above was matchless. I was particularly taken with the coronation exhibit that showed HM’s magnificent Hartnell coronation gown and robe of state as well as Queen Victoria’s diamond collet necklace, the King George IV diamond diadem and the robes worn by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

Today’s trip to the palace was nothing short of soul-destroying. The visit began ten minutes before the allocated time whereby visitors were corralled into queues by walkie-talkie wielding kids from stage school on their summer jobs taking great delight in bossing and admonishing like Miss Jean Brodie.

Once inside we were penned into a queue for half an hour while further tadpoles with headsets shouted at the top of their lungs that we would be subjected to airport-style security checks: belts removed, phones in bags, shoes off, inappropriate piercings declared. It was like Gatwick in high season and utterly dehumanising.

Granted, we have to live in Jihadi London and security is paramount but would The Queen really approve of her guests being treated like cattle class on an EasyJet flight? To say the tour was overbooked is the understatement of the century. All I could think was £50 for two, 200 people every quarter of the hour and kerching. We were processed like pork sausages on a production line.

Once inside the palace we were treated to an exhibition that was quite frankly an international tour of toot that the poor dear Queen had been burdened with throughout her long reign. The curation was Orla Kiley boutique meets The Generation Game: endless displays of the most hideous objects that could ever be bestowed on a defenceless woman.

How HM and Prince Philip kept a straight face receiving such diplomatic gifts is a tribute to British fortitude. Canada burdened Her Majesty with a crude totem pole and  a pair of knitted mittens. Australia gave her a boomerang that I am sure The Queen sincerely hoped would never come back. Uzbekistan gave her vases painted with The Queen and Prince Philip’s portraits: he looking like the late Shah of Iran and she like Joan Simms.

As Mum correctly said, you have to accept gifts gracefully though most of us have charity shops and rubbish dumps to offload such unwanted objects of veneration. It said an awful lot about John F. Kennedy’s hubris that he gave Her Majesty a signed photograph of himself (perfect for the under butler’s lavatory) or that Saudi Arabia gave her a model of camels and palm trees in solid gold that would be fun for Wills and Kate to use as a doorstop at Amner House.

Many of the Gulf State monarchs gave HM jewellery but that was conspicuously absent. In its place were tatty rugs from Botswana, a Brussels lace table mat that would look hideous in the White Drawing Room and a model of HMY Britannia that probably kept a young Prince Charles entertained in the bath for a night or two.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, we encountered a display dedicated to the late Diana, Princess of Wales as chosen by the Princes William and Harry. God it was rotten. The curator recreated Diana’s Kensington Palace writing desk down to a tatty black leather briefcase filled with cassettes of Duran Duran and Queen. The display was mawkish, ugly and ever so slightly reminiscent of turning bog standard objects into icons. Diana had such style and this echo did not do her proud.

A much greater crowd pleaser for Diana would be a single object such as her sapphire engagement ring or one dress that captured her beauty and glamour. Diana was given an awful lot of jewellery from foreign potentates that would have given this display the wow factor that the masses would have appreciated.

Buckingham Palace is an odd construction not beloved by any of the Royal Family. The stars of the palace are the chandeliers that could have been lit to add drama and the State Rooms that were ruined by the Ikea displays of ghastly gifts that most of us would have consigned to the loft. Perhaps Buckingham Palace was having a gap year with this exhibit and are cruising a little believing that the world wants access to the Monarch’s London home. For me, it was messy and lazy.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the promise that you came out in the garden. I have been to Buckingham Palace garden parties and it is a joy. On this tour, you leave the palace and there are ropes that lead your around the perimeter and out to be dumped onto a busy boring road. I believe you can book tickets for a tour of the gardens but I do think that for the ticket price a meander on the lawn would have shown class.

Instead, you are forced to run the gauntlet of the git shop where you can buy paste copies of The Queen’s Williamson Pink diamond brooch, tea towels and naff bits of corgi nonsense. I don’t think I saw a book in sight or anything approaching intellect about the British Royal Family. There was also a marquee pitched along the side of the palace doing catering. Kerching!

It is admirable  that the Palace opens to the public in the summer time. It is appreciated that the Palace is seeking to pay for its own upkeep. But in naff contemporary terms ‘the visitor experience’ is tacky compared to Chatsworth or even Hampton Court Palace. My Mum deserved better.

 

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Jewellery for Gentlemen. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

After all these years, I think you’ve gathered that I’ve always had a magpie’s eye for jewellery. Over the years I’ve progressed from writing about fine jewellery in the FT and the old International Herald Tribune to styling the pictures in my next Thames & Hudson book Jewellery for Gentlemen. Though the book isn’t published until 2018, gentlemen’s jewellery has somewhat taken over my thoughts.

In recent months I have been choosing an edit of men’s jewellery with the best of British designers for The Wedding Gallery at No 1 Marylebone. Both the book and The Wedding Gallery have confirmed a thought in the back of my mind that men’s jewellery is at the same position as Savile Row ten years ago when I weighed in to promote and protect a craft I believed in and still do.

The momentum gathering behind men’s jewellery is strong. I only have to look at the now-ubiquitous tattoos on the streets of London to understand that there’s a desire for individual embellishment. Whereas a tattoo is ostensibly for life, a piece or pieces of jewellery can express personality but crucially can also be removed. No emotion lasts forever and our tastes evolve. This is the main reason I never had a motif inked on my skin.

Researching Jewellery for Gentlemen taught me a lot. I have always been a servant to what I perceive to be good taste. This in itself is an extreme statement. I would think nothing of wearing a baroque pearl, diamond and ruby butterfly pin from the late Victorian era with a City suit but I would never wear a fist-full of rings.

I’m all for the single piece of jewellery but have come to appreciate the men who can wear rings, earrings, pendants and bracelets with an edgy informality. I’m thinking of Brazilian jeweller Ara Vartanian, David Yurman creative director Evan Yurman, Shaun Leane, Bespoke Banter founder Scott Wimsett, model Lucky Blue Smith and F1 idol Lewis Hamilton.

The difference between these guys and the silver rock ‘n roll dudes or heavy metal Hip Hop gangstas is a sophistication in the choice and combination of pieces. What we’re seeing is the death of obnoxious bling. There is something so elegant about Ara wearing a pendant half-set with black diamond beads or Scott wearing a heavy 19th century yellow gold fob watch chain as a necklace. Shaun can wear one of his pavé set diamond fender rings for day and it looks utterly right.

When I went to New York earlier this year to interview Evan Yurman we discovered a shared love of mixing it all up: an Ancient Roman silver intaglio ring, a Neo-Renaissance carnelian signet ring, a mid-Century David Webb cufflink and a contemporary David Yurman meteorite pendant.

I will never pile it on but have of late taken to wearing my grandfather’s rose gold fob watch chain as a double-link bracelet and never leaving the house without setting a jewelled gold stick pin in my lapel. A lot of my writing has been about learning from the past and I believe antique men’s jewellery deserves a place in the mix if worn with a new point of view.

Can’t even look at a fine jewellery collection now without thinking how best to adapt pieces for a man’s wardrobe. Thus was the case at the Cartier exhibition a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a diamond, onyx and emerald Panthère brooch/pin that absolutely belongs on a grosgrain peak lapel of a dinner jacket.

As a journalist then an author and curator, I suppose promotion and preservation were the underlying results of all the work. I suppose I have sold myself indirectly but have never taken an idea and turned it into business selling something tangible. Well that’s about to change.

Doing a business plan has been rather a stretch and certainly concentrates the mind on commerciality which is not, as it turns out, a dirty word. Working with The Wedding Gallery has in many respects been a masterclass in business. I’ve never had to think about units and gross and profit margins before but it’s high time that I did.

Granted the people who make Bond villain money sell commodities that the world needs rather than the elite wants: petroleum, pharmaceuticals, orange juice cartons, moisturiser, whatever. Either that or they provide addictive tech that people lived perfectly well without for thousands of years.

Does the world need jewellery for gentlemen? I would surmise that in an increasingly virtual world, commodities in precious metal and gemstones might well become more trusted than Bitcoin. Jewels are what saved the Romanovs and the Indian Maharajas from abject poverty following disaster. Humans have a visceral connection to precious objects that dates back to the dawn of civilisation.

There has to be a revolt against fast fashion and bulimic mass consumerism where tat is hoovered up then emptied to make way for more. It is only sensible to buy infinitely less that will be yours for life and accrue value. In this respect, antique jewellery is a great investment. There is only a finite amount left ergo as the decades go by, it will increase in value.

I moved into the promotion of Savile Row when I recognised that global luxury brands were no less morally questionable than Primark. The million pound handbag or the billion pound villa in the South of France make me distinctly queazy. Financially the world is so out of kilter that bitterness and resentment on a global scale reigns.

The concept of Britain being a nation of shopkeepers appeals to me and I’d like to contribute to that economy not the world where men who juggle finance like a card sharp on a Harlem street corner inherit the earth.

 

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Lady Sings The Blues. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

To the Wyndhams Theatre for Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. For anyone who knows Broadway, Audra’s voice is one of those once in a generation lyric sopranos comparable to Barbra Streisand or Bernadette Peters in its purity. The lady has won more Tony Awards – six – than any other actor or actress. She is a star of stage, film, television, recording and countless concerts.

I wonder whether London quite yet appreciates that what they are seeing in Lady Day is a once in a lifetime play-with-music in which Audra totally possesses Billie Holiday in the twilight of her life performing at Philadelphia club Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The year is 1959 and Billie has months before cirrhosis of the liver and heroin addiction claims her life. Before the show began, I thought Audra as Billie was like asking Doris Day to play Blanche Dubois.

The production is staged with the audience at cafe tables on the stage and in the first few rows of the stalls. Billie is backed by a smoking piano, bass and drums trio. From the second Audra appears on the stage in a white slipper satin gown and over-the-elbow gloves, she nails Billie’s stooped posture and blowsy, bar room gait. She opens her mouth and I swear if we didn’t know better I would say this was mime to a Holiday recording.

How Audra McDonald could adjust her golden voice into a ballsy, raspy, guttural drawl is beyond belief. It is like playing dirty blues on a Stradivarius. The playlist has  been carefully chosen to illustrate moments in Billie’s personal life and songs become increasingly scarce as Billie’s monologues get longer and sharper. Audra’s body language makes it clear from the beginning that this is a falling star. The voice is lacerated by booze, drugs, anger and disappointment.

Billie Holiday is not a natural heroine. Often she isn’t even likeable as Audra plays her. We know from history that she loses the battle with drugs and booze aged forty-four. We know her choices of men (and women) were disastrous. There is a prurience to Billie fans who map her decline in the quality of her voice. But the writing is such that Audra is given the opportunity to paint a portrait of a woman who has not a shred of self-pity, oceans of black humour and a bald acceptance that racism is a fact of her life. She becomes heroic.

Billie’s life is in her voice and it wasn’t pretty. Audience members wanting pretty songs will be shocked by Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. But as Billie says in the play, you sing how you feel and that makes Audra’s renditions of God Bless the Child, Don’t Explain, Strange Fruit and Give Me a Pigfoot so visceral. I wished for That Ole Devil Called Love but Billie had a big repertoire so Audra couldn’t sing them all.

It was such a good call to run the play in one rather than having an interval. You have to stay in the moment and watch Billie’s decline as she begins to drink neat vodka then go offstage to shoot-up. She returns with the gloves off and needle punctures suggested. Billie explains that she was introduced to hard drugs by her husbands and boyfriends and that one in particular fitted her up resulting in a prison sentence.

I really appreciated how the script threw in traumas in Billie’s life almost as an aside proving that she was sanguine about her fate. Aged eleven she was raped. Before the age of fourteen she was working in a brothel with her mother the Duchess. On tour with Artie Shaw she was denied a lavatory because there was no such thing for negro women. In prison she was chained to a bed and forced to go cold turkey. This would fry anyone’s brains but Billie endured and put the pain in her music.

It seems clear that the Feds targeted Billie Holiday. After her prison sentence, she was denied the cabaret card to perform in New York and all she did to feel alive was sing in clubs. Instead her then agent booked her into a sell-out concert in Carnegie Hall. That was Billie’s triumph. But she wasn’t allowed to triumph for long. This was a woman handcuffed to a hospital bed as she lay dying.

It takes guts and skill to play drug and drugged and Audra casts the spell beautifully. I could only think ‘what discipline’ to watch her woozily falling, missing cues and raging to the audience. When she hits the notes it is a small triumph. That takes a touch of genius. Whatever the hell a mess Billie Holiday was in, her voice could lullaby lions. She tended to sing behind the beat and have an unique phrasing learned from recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Audra nails this as if she is Billie Holiday possessed.

Billie isn’t a nice, sympathetic character but she is a strong voice in the fight for civil rights in America. Audra took her on and did her proud. This is an unvarnished, coarse, barnstorming performance that deserves every award that the theatre can give it. I feel privileged to have witnessed a performer like Audra McDonald pay tribute to a performer like Billie Holiday with great respect, affection and love.

 

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She Won’t Go Quietly. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Quite the storm about Channel 4′s decision to broadcast the Diana, Princess of Wales tapes recorded at Kensington Palace by her voice coach. The tapes were found in butler Paul Burrell’s possession, confiscated by the police then held until the courts decided the copyright belonged to said voice coach whose decision it was to sell.

First things first, Diana gave the strongest indication in her Panorama interview that ‘she won’t go quietly’ and thus the case has proved on the 20th anniversary of her death. Diana was no fool and I cannot imagine the lady was unaware that these tapes were explosive to say the least. Why else were they made but for future broadcast?

The thing that struck me the most about the Diana we see on the tapes is how utterly relaxed, natural and animated she is. There is none of the melodrama that we saw on the Panorama interview which was evidently scripted and performed. On the tapes, she is in turn playful, perceptive and incredibly down-to-earth speaking of herself as a ‘fat, jolly Sloane Ranger’ when  she became engaged to the Prince of Wales.

The Princess’s humour is a delight. Make-up artist Barbara Daley recalls how the then Lady Diana Spencer hummed ‘Just One Cornetto’ as she stepped into the State Coach en route to St Paul’s presumably in reference to the ludicrous crushed meringue wedding dress that overwhelmed her.

Diana makes it clear that she was aware of the Prince of Wales’s oddities before they married despite describing his courting telephone calls as a ‘thrill so immense and intense’. When interviewed for the engagement, she was mortified when Prince Charles replied ‘whatever love means’ to the question whether they were in love.

The footage chosen to accompany the Diana tapes was clever. There’s a close-up on the bride as she’s about to step out on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Diana looking distinctly uneasy until she sees the crowd and beams a dazzling smile.  Another close-up showed trouble behind the nineteen-year-old bride’s eyes. The caption might read: ‘what have I got myself into?’

The Diana on the tapes is a disappointed romantic who has made the best of a marriage doomed before her train had slithered up the steps of St Paul’s. I thought one of the saddest moments on the documentary was when Diana’s dance teacher said that even in 1981 – the year of the marriage – she was aware that her husband’s heart was elsewhere. Ironic for a woman who would come to be loved by millions but not uncommon.

Like all great actresses, Diana shielded her anxieties from the public gaze. So good was the face she showed to the world that her popularity soared: another black mark in the eyes of the Royal Family. Knowledge that her husband was still consorting with Mrs Parker Bowles led to bulimia that Diana said on record all The Firm knew about. Her explanation was that ‘I chose to hurt myself instead of hurting all of you’. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it.

Much more than the Panorama interview, the Diana tapes set the record straight. She is an emotionally intelligent woman with a wry smile but terribly sad eyes. Her platonic love affair with her personal protection officer who was dismissed and killed in a motorcycle accident is described as the love of her life. It appears he was the Prince Charming that Charles would not be for his young wife.

The tapes are also proof that the Prince of Wales’s court were smearing Diana because she would not accept Camilla Parker-Bowles as her husband’s mistress. When Diana went to ‘the top lady’ for advice, the answer came ‘I have no idea. Charles is hopeless’. She was indeed isolated and fell into the arms of the handsome guardsman James Hewitt. Quite frankly, who wouldn’t?

The ‘War of the Windsors’ that became public in HM’s annus horribilis, 1992, wasn’t a fair fight. Diana was alone and Prince Charles had the might of the Royal Family behind him.  After the separation from Prince Charles, Diana – a woman who needed love and affirmation – was told in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t wanted. Fortunately, the British public wanted her, adored her and stood up for Diana after she decided to fight back with the Panorama interview.

The ‘Queen of People’s Hearts’ Panorama interview was watched by twenty-two million people . Diana cast herself as a woman scorned who remained strong nonetheless. What the Diana tapes show is a woman who kept her sense of humour. There is a wonderful moment when the voice coach asked why she dedicated so much time to her charities and Diana replies in fits of giggles ‘because I’ve nothing else to do’.

As we all know, the best revenge is to look good and by 1997, the year of her death, Diana had perfected her image as an independent, glamorous star who –  far from going quietly – wasn’t going anywhere. She had staked her territory as a charitable ambassador and mother of two boys who clearly worshipped her. She may or may not have married again. But the public’s fascination with Diana had, by 1997, exceeded that of the Royal Family. The world is a worse place for her untimely death.

Diana: In Her Own Words was an admirable hurrah from beyond the grave for a woman of exceptional qualities. She didn’t go quietly and the powers that be could not deny her a voice.

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Briefs. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I’ve often pondered why Paris has The Lido, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère and all London can muster up for spectacular cabaret is really West End shows like 42nd Street. If you want feathers, tits and glitz in Paris all you need is a back seat at the bar in the Lido and you’ll be entertained royally by the creme of the cabaret world. London just lacks.

Well, it did until the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank erected a mirrored, gilded Spiegeltent every summer and invited an international list of artists to entertain a slightly woozy audience who have been drinking in the open air bars that surround it.

The South Bank cabaret is generous on drag queens, burlesque and boylesque but there is one company of performers that entice me into the Spiegeltent at least three times during the season and these boys are called Briefs. This Australian collective of buff, bearded acrobats, circus queens and comediennes never, ever fail to lift my skirt.

The evening begins with tipsy quaffing in the open-air bar that soon processes to serious queueing to secure one of the best seats in the house as close to the raised stage as possible. For 2017, the Briefs boys work the Spiegeltent wearing spray-on tweed shorts suits selling tickets for the raffle. This is one ballot that every gay male in the audience wants to win.

The ambience is not dissimilar to Battersea Dogs Home when all the males are in heat. Not that the audience is exclusively male. I counted at least ten hen parties on various levels of inebriation though the boys did poke their heads up like meerkats every time a Brief boy approached with a dazzling smile and a raffle bucket illuminated by fairy lights.

Briefs always have a sparkly opening and 2017 was no exception: mistress of ceremonies Fez Fa’nana leading her boys in a striptease behind peacock feather fans. Now, admit it, we all have our favourite. Louis Biggs has a naughty schoolboy smile that  engages every member of the audience but I’ve always been a sucker for Mark ‘Captain Kidd’ Winmill. That man can fill a G-string like a cruise missile and two satellites.

Cabaret of any flavour has to have class, talent and sex. Mission is accomplished with Briefs who defy classification as boylesque, acrobatics or variety. The set pieces are so beautifully choreographed and timed to perfection to raise the audience’s collective blood pressure on the beat.

I do enjoy Fez’s schtick about blowing minds and perceptions and anything else you have to offer. I was less amused when I popped to the gents to discover that they were ‘gender neutral’. Now, I admire equality but do you think the girls in the boy’s loos really wanted to queue up next to urinals that an average of twenty men use every five minutes? I rest my case.

What I love about a Briefs show is how humour links skill that would defy Rudolph Nureyev. I enjoyed Harry Clayton-Wright and Thomas Grundy Greenfield’s interpretive dance based (very) loosely on Dirty Dancing. Seeing a bearded hulk throwing a man in a dress, NHS spectacles and dodgy wig around a stage is original and amusing.

But then Mark Winmill performs areal acrobatics on a trapeze wearing a black mamba thong, make-up glistening and muscles rippling, the magic infuses the room. These men are so talented and I think they use their bodies in a more life-affirming way than the steroid monkeys at the Olympics.

A new addition to Briefs this year was Thomas Worrell who performed a spinning areal acrobatic number in a metal birdcage. H had to pass me the sal volatile when his foot touched his forehead in the most beautiful move since Nijinsky danced. Bear in mind we were a bottle of rosé down at this point but that was positively flagging compared to the rest of the audience.

I think I recall Louis Biggs doing something impossible with a Rubix Cube and a Yo-Yo last year while dressed as a geeky schoolboy. This season he juggled balls with speed that would have defied the Hadron Collider. I’d love to see Louis have a crack at Bette Midler’s balls-on-strings. He is one of those boys for whom the words ‘awwww cute’ were invented.

By the time the raffle was drawn I think the entire tent was 100% proof. The lucky winner – a sexy gay boy – was treated to an ass-slapping lap dance that made one suspect the ballot was rigged. Well, why not?

Though I was bitterly disappointed that Captain Kidd didn’t lower himself from the ceiling into a giant champagne cup to splash and twirl like 2016, he did perform an act with day-glo hula hoops that had most of the audience adjusting their trousers. I am such a fan of dangerous, subversive, sexy cabaret so contented myself with applauding like a performing seal.

Briefs make much of being counterculture and challenging gender boundaries but I do have the feeling that they are preaching to the converted. They are a sell out show and the same cannot be said for most West End shows. I think rather than labouring the point they might be happy to celebrate their own sexiness rather than sexuality.

Watching Briefs made me question my profession. Would it not be more fun spinning from a hoop in a jock wearing make-up and facial hair than being an author? Hell yes. So, boys, more power to your elbow. Keep spinning, camping and flirting to show us all that life is about having a good time not trying to please an audience that simply don’t want to smile.

 

 

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