These are bad times for just about every human being in the world but for an American who has been hankering to visit London it may be the time to make that visit. The pound had its biggest fall since 1992 and is falling, falling, falling and the dollar buys more and more. Policymakers are explicitly warning that England is in a recession and bleak forecasts are being predicted for the months, even the years ahead. It is true there are deep and sometimes delicious sales of everything everywhere. And I have read and heard serious reports in the press from all the leaders of England who make it clear they are now all in the same boots American leaders are wearing. There will be major changes in the systems and I doubt we will see anything like recent booming London again for a long time. The shopkeepers and restaurant owners and managers of hotels are very hopeful Americans will return now that prices are so much lower.
So far, depression has not taken over the streets in London or in country England. Despite the miserable problems, jobs disappearing and bank credit impossible for small businesses to get, Londoners are leaving the doom and gloom at home and aren’t taking it out onto the streets or into the stores or restaurants. Selfridges and TopShop, as examples, have plenty of women inspecting the sales and, although a few restaurants are closing or offering simpler fare, you can’t get into a trendy one without a reservation.
Walking around all the neighborhoods with pretty parks and shops and sidewalk restaurants, I have been reminded that, more than any city, I know London has a population of people from all over the world living comfortably together — everyone seems to feel equal to everyone else — except for the small world of fashionistas and the elite that boasts attachment to the queen.
I have been as alert as can be but I see smiling faces up and down and around and about and I hear a lot of talk about art as this is London’s big art season and a lot of it can be seen free of any charge. Also I hear a lot of talk about how impossible it is to get seats to Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov, the rave of London, or to Oedipus — London loves Ralph Fiennes in this version of the play — or about Madonna’s divorce — or George Osborne’s problem (he is the shadow chancellor): Did he or did he not ask Oleg Deripaska (Russia’s richest oligarch) for a donation for the Conservative Party? England has miseries just as America has but people don’t seem to be taking them out for a walk and a coffee.
The new blooming restaurant is Bellamy’s. It is a younger, fresher and less expensive Marks Club type of place. In fact, some of the people once worked at Marks. I liked it a lot. I liked the food. I liked the service, the warmth. I liked the look of the place – it is not expecting an award – it is not overheated, not fancy, not decadent. I liked the prices, I liked the location – tucked away, privately, on Bruton Place. It is growing a good following. London has an abundance of good restaurants and the recent trend to one-course dining here started by women who want to wear a size 2 and men who want to look younger without a paunch is making most of them more affordable. The lovely old Connaught Hotel has been redone with a sparkle and has opened a second bar that is sleekly anti-Connaught – perhaps Connaught devotees will not like it but I did. It is cool. Feeling cool at the Connaught is new and fun.
Theaters are as jammed as ever. London has never needed a hit to enjoy the theater if they like the writer or the actor or the director. It has always made me wonder how the English manage to see all the new movies and everything good and bad in theater. “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” is the movie that is piling them up here but “I’ve Loved You So Long” is doing well and seems to be in the mood of the times.
“Oedipus” with Ralph Fiennes in the title role is sold out until we all move to the moon. I tried to read every review but got punch drunk; reviewers are so excited with this production they let it all out — everything they ever wanted to say about Sophocles, tragedies, Fiennes and psychology. Matt Wolf said in the International Herald Tribune that he can’t imagine an audience failing to be impressed by the totality of an experience that makes a benchmark play seem bruisingly alive well before the blood begins to spill. His review, like others, is a work of art itself. This performance seems to bring out writing gifts that deserve as much applause as the performance. A young woman told me that she knew little about Sophocles or Oedipus but she read Christopher Hart say, “Oedipus is the profoundest tragedy as well as the greatest whodunnit ever written and that presenting it in a modern world where the concepts of guilt and shame have virtually been abolished is quite a challenge” and that it is “achingly powerful” – so she created a theater party and everyone in the party was stunned with appreciation, especially her, so she is reading the original.
I saw the wonderfully acted “Rain Man” – loved it – and now want to go revisit the original movie. I don’t believe Dustin Hoffman could be better as the developmentally challenged brother than Adam Godley is – both brothers in this production are superb. Also, people are driving cars and taking trains long distances to London to see “The Norman Conquests,” Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy about middle-class marriage which is just perfect – yes, perfect. Theater in London has never been very expensive and you almost always get a lot more than your money’s worth – especially now.
But the best bargain in town is that THIS is art season in London and most of the art shows last until early Spring. This is the time of year when you can bet Charles Saatchi and Francois Pinault’s adviser, Philippe Segalot, and beautiful Daria Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s partner who has the hot gallery in Moscow, will be inspecting the new shows at VIP openings and making deals to pick up all the Hirsts of this season.
The Frieze contemporary art fair kicks things off each new season and, as usual, pulled in the experts and whatever super rich are still super rich. Art sold well at the fair I am told but not like in the past. A lot of viewers were “just looking.” The fair had 152 participants that seemed to me to cover everything you could call art – which is everything you can possibly imagine. Conceptual art sometimes envelopes me and takes me up and away on a great journey but sometimes I just don’t get it. At the Frieze you could have your feet rubbed as a work of art and enjoy parrots trained to bark (I loved them) and 10,000 blue wrapped candies that I think I saw at the Venice Biennale last summer except there you were encouraged to take some of them home. It is easy to wonder if you, yourself, have become part of the staging of somebody’s conceptual art when you are at these shows. But you should take a look at the Goshka Macuga images and objects at the Frieze fair, utterly impossible for me to describe but they are worth your time. Oh, there are a lot of things to see that are worth your time at Frieze!!!!!!!! and you don’t have to buy a thing.
At Tate Modern you don’t have to pay anything to see the new work in its vast Turbines Hall – the new installation has about 200 beds that look as if they came from a dismantled military base and the enormous animal sculptures that hang over them and the movies suggest we are in an era of never-ending rain and at the end – of everything. Again, this is worth your time and it’s a marvel at no cost. But the Tate Modern’s Mark Rothko show, though called “outstanding” in the Sunday Times, looked to me as if the curator was bored to the teeth with old Mark and sent out for some nails and cord and forgot about the lighting. Heaven knows we have all seen Rothko shows over and over so I can’t blame him, but the Museum of Modern Art had a better sense of theater and a lot better sense of how to light a Rothko when this show was in America. However, if you hurried out of the show here in London as many seemed to be doing, you ran into a show of Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles that is interesting. One of his political conceptual dramas, “How to Build Cathedrals,” was made with 600,000 coins, 2000 bones, 500 communion wafers, 80 paving stones and black fabric. Forget politics, it is simply gorgeous.
The Tate Modern has its Turbines Hall and a fabulous shop but I will take its alter ego, Tate Britain, thank you. And right now it has a stunning show of Francis Bacon’s best and most famous paintings. This curator was wide awake – thanks to him you get a deeply enriching feel for Francis who worked on a larger scale than I knew and in color! Tate Britain has class and its shows leave you satisfied.
The cherry on the top at Tate Britain is Martin Creed’s Work No. 850. Martin Creed’s live performance art presentations are funny, entertaining and they make you think. Work No. 850, for the duration of the exhibition, will have a person run as fast as he or she can, at regular intervals, through the full length of the space. If you don’t know about it this drama is startling as between runners the space remains empty aside from the public. Creed likes running as the opposite of being still, the opposite of death, and he thinks running fast is the exact opposite of death, and is an example of aliveness. It was a surprise to witness and brought to life anyone who had been dragged to the museum against his will. We sneaked photographs to show you.
There are many free-admission galleries and museums full of treasures in London and areas outside of town. The Zoo Art Fair at the Royal Academy is fun and young and never disappointing. The auctions, though, with their top-of-the-line artists, have been disappointing this scary season and even Andy Warhol’s skulls disappointed.
Where you have dinner after these shows is a gossipy issue I have never understood, but it is important to those in the know. It seems that Bistrotheque is a good place to be seen. Try to go with cool artists like Tracey Emin and invite Kate Bosworth or Madonna now that she is free. Only kidding! Have a really good time and go someplace fun with someone you can argue with freely about art.
Last on my list but really first on my list, the gallery that opened the season with the biggest bang and the most glamour by far is Charles Saatchi’s new gallery in Chelsea. It has 70,000 square feet of good airy design, good lighting, a sense of theater, lots of quality and the Saatchi Chinese art collection. It is a treat and some of the Chinese pieces will knock your socks off. Julian Schnabel and Tracey Emin were at the opening along with Mariella Frostrup and Lord Richard Rogers, who seems to be redesigning the world; Charles Saatchi’s wife, sexy cook Nigella Lawson; Phillips de Pury, Simon de Pury and Alan Yentob – oh, everybody in London who is really cool. Whether or not you love the collection you won’t forget it and you will want to discuss it. I could have danced all night around the place and didn’t want to leave so we all took photographs for you to get the picture, if you will forgive the pun. I couldn’t buy you all the great catalogue but I will make a short stab at explaining the pictures we have put up for you.
Kate Ford and I finally fled London and drove to the country to the Thames Valley Antique Dealers Association in Oxfordshire. It’s an area with so many antique shops it would take you a year to see them all. And it is where the London big boys often go to pick up good stuff and double the price to sell in London. You can e-mail the association and get a good map and guide before your trip to London. It isn’t so much the furniture that is so much fun and makes you feel so good as it is the people you will meet at these shops and at the dealers association fair. This is an endangered species – these are English the way you think English are when they are not being celebrities in London. These are the English in books. This is a good way to exercise your feeling of family with the English.
I have two small gifts from London for you: Andrew Lloyd Webber has volunteered to write Britain’s song for the Eurovision Song Contest when the competition is held in – help! – Moscow next year. People are talking or laughing about it but be the first to know who wins. I’ll tell you as soon as I hear.
And be sure to see the YouTube clip of the baby with the infectious laugh that had the Queen, when she visited Google, and everybody there giggling like mad last week:
It may be chic to be with the Chinese, Indians and Russians but the English have the same genetic numbers in their codes as we do. They will love to see you if you go and the price is right.