Diary Australia

London diary

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

4 June 2022

9:00 AM

Two years away from London due to Covid. Our Bloomsbury flat has been empty all that time. Probably possible to rent it out but so much damage has been done in the past by tenants that I’ve realised the rent never covers the cost of repairs. London seems a bit gloomy. There is more rubbish in the streets than I remember from 2020 and the number of men living rough has increased – certainly around Bloomsbury. Many are in sleeping bags but some have huge tents, stoves and an array of unhappy-looking dogs.

Now that my friends here have to deal with passports and visas when visiting Europe they’re spending a lot of time attacking the Brexit fiasco. Topics include increased costs due to import duties and, worst of all, the sudden absence of Polish carpenters, plumbers and electricians, whose efficiency was legendary. Almost all have returned home. There seems to be no one around who can fix anything.

Mr Putin, who clearly has a PhD in irrational behaviour, announced that Russia has a bomb capable of causing a tidal wave that would deluge all of Britain. My friend, Michael Blakemore, a celebrated Australian theatre director who lives on the top floor of this block of flats, has told Virginia and me that we would be safe with him when the wave hits. Only the first three floors would be underwater.

Boris Johnson seems to be stumbling from one fiasco to another – his Brexit coup being his piece de resistance. Having been ridiculed in the media for being bullied by his latest wife and not appearing to know how many children he has, he was also fined for attending a party during the Covid lockdown. Currently he has to sort out political problems in Ireland – confusion due to Brexit which leaves the north as part of the United Kingdom and the south still in the EU. The Sinn Fein victory in the Ulster election has added complications that would tax the negotiating skills of Pitt the Younger, Gladstone and Disraeli.

In London a number of stores have closed as a result of the Covid curse – just as they have in Sydney. My local Tesco supermarket is often very low on produce, probably because most of the delivery drivers were from Poland and now they’ve all gone. Price rises are cleverly disguised by decreases in the size of packaging, so that the same outlay buys less. Boxed cereals and packets of nuts and raisins, etc. have shrunk. Ice creams and chocolates are around two-thirds their previous size. Bottled drinks have been dwarfed. In a café a few days ago I had to order three bottles of ginger ale to get enough to fill one normal size glass. It doesn’t surprise me that the pubs are all packed, as usual. Oddly, the drinkers seem to prefer standing outside on the footpath with their beer, even if it’s cold and raining. Restaurants are also packed, which does surprise me, as the cost of meals is astronomical – and isn’t aided by the collapse of the Australian dollar.

Because of the years I’ve spent making films in America and around Europe, I imagined that my Australian accent had become less Crocodile Dundee. Wrong. I jumped into a taxi a few days ago and said ‘Piccadilly’. One word. The driver yelled out, ‘what part of Australia are you from, mate?’

All of the theatres and cinemas are open and the signs telling people to wear masks are virtually totally ignored. There are also few masks worn on the crowded underground. Musicals dominate the theatres. The staging of all of them is elaborate, with huge casts and expensive sets and lighting. Moulin Rouge is one of the most popular and it’s hard to find a ticket despite the cost being around $200.

A trip to York to see Barry Humphries’ show The Man Behind the Mask. It’s the story of his own life, hilarious and often touching. At the end the audience erupted in a standing ovation, clearly genuinely expressed and not contrived by the management. Barry is travelling with the show from city to city, all over England. Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic and every performance has been to capacity. On the phone Barry said to me, ‘I don’t know why I’m doing this, at my age’. He’s 88. I replied, ‘Because you’re so happy performing. It’s keeping you young.’

A production of Britten’s incredible Peter Grimes at Covent Garden with Allan Clayton, Bryn Terfel and Maria Bengtsson all in fine voice. Perhaps in a search for contemporary relevance the director, Deborah Warner, unwisely, in my opinion, shifted the story from a fishing village in 1820 to a seaside town in the 1970s. The arias and chorus throughout were unchanged so were at odds with the twentieth century.

Even worse was a National Theatre production of the Emlyn Williams play The Corn is Green. The setting remained Wales in the 1920s but someone thought it would be a smashing idea to have an actor playing Williams on stage, reading the stage directions from the script. This had the effect, not surprisingly, of annihilating the drama and characterisations in the play. David Hare’s new play Straight Line Crazy is impressive. A fascinating study of the American architect and town planner, Robert Moses, whose radical changes to New York city were, according to Hare, often more damaging than beneficial. An outstanding cast was headed by Ralph Fiennes. Nicholas Hytner directed the story effectively without changing its location or adding a superfluous character.

The Tate Gallery currently has an extensive exhibition of paintings by Walter Sickert (1860-1942), though no mention was made of the book by Patricia Cornwell claiming that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Perhaps a few of his gloomy paintings of a seedy Camden Town prompted her research and dubious conclusion. Before leaving the Tate I was anxious to visit the restaurant, the walls of which have murals by the English painter/muralist/costume designer, Rex Whistler. I remember being taken to see these delightful and colourful images by the painter Jeffrey Smart when I first went to London in the 1960s.  However, last week I couldn’t locate the restaurant in the Tate guide book. I found a staff member and asked to be directed to the Whistler murals. I was told that the room was closed and there are no plans to reopen it. Evidently it was discovered that among the numerous figures in the paintings there are two slave boys and considerable ‘racist imagery’ which is ‘too offensive for modern diners’.

At least Rex Whistler didn’t live to see his magnificent work concealed from the public. He died in action in France in 1944. The Times received more letters about his death than for any other war victim.

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