London is once again awash with tourists for the Paralympic Games. In the Olympic spirit, I’d like to propose a lanes system for London’s streets: a dual carriage way on each pavement with a fast lane for natives and slow for plodders. We could even have a hard shoulder for all our foreign guests who stand grouped like bewildered penguins bobbing and pecking around an upside down map of London kindly donated by those volunteers in the hideous pink and purple uniforms reminiscent of a colour blind girl scout troupe.
The Olympic effect has even had its wicked way with the Holborn camp greco-Roman sauna, steam and swimming pool. Usually, one can be swallow diving like Esther Williams by 6.45am into an empty pool. Not since the Russian invasion this week. One particularly coarse and flabby party invade the steam room at 7am. If there was a speech bubble above my head, it would read ‘toss the harpoon’. They bellow, bluster and grunt with absolutely no consideration for the natives who use the Holborn Health Spa for a little morning peace and quiet to prepare us for the onslaught of London life.
At weekends the pool is flooded by hen parties who leave a litter of plastic water cups, sopping wet towels and foam swimming accoutrements in their wake. One particularly gormless girl stood leaning against the open door of the sauna chatting to her friends. I restrained myself from commenting that the heat was evaporating faster than her husband’s passions will come the wedding night. I’m not overfond of couples canoodling in the swimming pool either with the chap dragging the giggling girl round by her heels. I could effervesce in the water like the best of them but I’m far too busy in the steam room with my copy of the Daily Mail.
What always amazes me about visitors to London is their limited outlook on what the city has to offer. They munch a burger in Leicester Square having seen the latest 3D cartoon on the big screen such as Kung-Foo Ferret and think they’re experiencing London like a Cockney. They flood Tate Modern thinking they are seeing a Cultural Olympiad. Well, if you want pickled shark and childish scrawl a la Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin may I suggest the pie shop on Exmouth Market and any underpass in the outer suburbs.
The Artist and I had a super Sunday at Somerset House to view an exhibition of drawing from Durer to Matisse (that isn’t the title but those are the pieces that grabbed me) that was quite simply nourishing to the soul. Artists represented included Toulouse Lautrec, Rubens, Boucher, Picasso and Sisley. We adored it. The Courtauld Institute is in one of the most beautiful Neo-Classical buildings in London built on the site of a palace built by Indigo Jones for Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. My mate Corrie Nielsen the fashion designer has a studio in one of the staterooms there.
The permanent collection at the Courtauld is one of the finest Impressionist and Post-Impressionist group of artworks amassed by a London institution. You will find masterpieces by the greats: Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Lautrec, Van Gogh and Gaugin. The fact that they are presented in Neo-Classical galleries adds to the majesty. The Artist made a pertinent comment. Why were radical paintings for their time framed in the classic style with great big swirls of gilt? It makes no sense at all. However, my spirits were lifted by being in the company of masterpieces unencumbered by the dummy tourist masses who only want to see the images they buy on greetings cards.
My favourite painting bar none in the Courtauld Collection is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Rat Mort. It depicts a leering courtesan with bright red hair and scarlet lipstick entertaining a top-hatted amour at the infamous Paris biote. The pear in the fruit bowl on the table echoes her elaborate headdress tied with a bow. The green tinges are ever so slightly seedy and suggest a fug of absinthe. I wrote about Lautrec for my Art A Level and fell in love with his tender depictions of the dark underbelly of Paris’s nightclubs and brothels.
I am not drawn to the dark side in the Max Mosley sense. But I do appreciate the decadence and glamour of a late night club in 19th century Paris, the chic of cocktails at the Cafe Royal in London, the suspender-snapping energy of Liza in Cabaret and the fun of late night London when anything is possible if you keep your wits about you.
Apropos of this, true Londoners know terribly well that when they navigate the streets after dark one’s danger radar has to be very well attuned. You can spot the heroin addicts a mile off. They are like the straggly pigeons in Trafalgar Square shuffling, fluttering and coughing as they weave around the pavements. You can see the aggressive drunken packs who are looking for trouble and simply cross the road. The drug dealers are like whispering Iagos standing on the street corners looking shifty. The joy boys and gay ladies are the least threatening. They have a trade to ply and honit soit qui mal y pense.
I wasn’t born in London but it has been my adopted city ever since my parentals first took me there aged five years old to see the Crown Jewels and attend Trooping the Colour where – to our national shame – the Olympic powers that be have deemed it acceptable to locate beach volleyball. I believe I will live and die a Londoner but with many, many trips on the Train Bleu to Nice to soak up the sun, sea and salty air. Apropos of which I am cancelling the Corfu trip this year in favour of another four days in Nice in late September.