Saturday, 14 May 2022

From Adam to Art Deco

One of my favourite places in London has ever been that facade along the Thames, on the North Bank, from roughly the east side of Hungerford Bridge to the west edge of Waterloo Bridge. I love walking along that esplanade, absorbing the jaunty, day-out-in-town atmosphere with other out and about people, and watching the boats weaving along the river. This atmosphere is helped, of course, by the glorious mix of classical and modernistic architecture on the built side of the road. And my favourite building of all is the Adelphi. Regular readers of this column will know my penchant for art deco and all that it encompasses. And this modernistic style owes its existence, in no small part, to the success and fame of Robert Adam, eighteenth-century practitioner of architecture and of the decorative arts. Though we associate art deco with modernism, the decorative friezes and moderate dimensions of the Adelphi are a nod to the Adam style.
Robert Adam was born in Edinburgh and in 1754, he set out on that requisite of every eighteenth-century gentleman, the Grand Tour of Europe. He gravitated naturally towards Italy where he met architects like Charles-Louis Clerisseau and Giovanni Piranesi, who practised in the wake of the excavation of Herculaneum. This was the sister-town to Pompeii, buried by ash and lava in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Robert was impressed by the simplicity of Roman architecture; the elegant interiors and striking wall paintings of the villas in carefully-planned streets. He returned to England in 1758 and together with his brothers, James and William, settled in London and established himself as an authority on neoclassical architecture and interiors.
From the word go, he was besieged by clients, both from the nouveau riche and the inner circle of the aristocracy, with commissions for interiors and buildings. In 1761, he gained a post as Architect to the King's Works. Classical proportioning is evident in the building at 7 Adam Street (a short distance from the Adelphi) in London, the rustications of the ground floor differentiated by blocks of cream-painted stone, with red brick reserved for the upper stories. The new Adam vocabulary eschewed the severity of the traditional Greek style, adding decorative elements in bas relief to the coursings running vertically and horizontally on the front of the building. Robert Adam had succeeded in creating a new vocabulary of architecture, while drawing from traditional sources. But it was with interiors that his firm really made its name.
The Adam interior is typified by delicacy and symmetry, unifying the rooms and echoing the classical dimensions of the house. Most particularly, Adam redefined the fireplace, with typical decorative coursings running the perimeters of the chimney place. By 1768, the Adam firm had begun their speculative scheme to build twenty-four 'first rate houses' on the north bank of Thames. But in the 1780’s, a national credit crisis put paid to the venture, and the brothers were forced to sell the plot to stave off bankruptcy. However, the Adelphi survives today in the form of the elegant art deco building on the original site. Art deco parallels the work of Adam in that it refers to ancient cultures, Mayan and Incan as opposed to Greek and Roman, and the resulting highly decorative surfaces are applied both inside and outside a building. The difference is that while Adam-style decoration makes much use of colour, art deco emerged for the electric age: witness the effects of light and shade playing upon upon the Adelphi monochrome surfaces. To appreciate the way from Adam to art deco, do take that walk along the North Bank.

Monday, 25 April 2022

The Logic of Luggage

Reader, I used to love airports, the entire razzle, the excitement of packing for a much-anticipated trip, the glorious entry to the rarefied atmosphere of a hub of a thousand airlines, it seemed, before jetting off into the skies to whatever destination. Several decades and countless trips later, I have to wonder: what has happened to those halcyon days? I am not complaining about security procedures: we all want to travel safely. Besides, I rather enjoy sashaying through the electronic portal; modelling dreams fulfilled and all of that! It is the illogical attitude of the “cabin-sized bag” that many airlines seem to favour that is sending me into over-drive.
Friend, I ask: what is the point of a checking a cabin-sized bag into the hold, a facility that many airlines provide for free? Surely, the whole point of a cabin-sized bag is to take it into the, er, cabin? And wherefrom the attendant logic of charging the passenger through the nose for checking a “normal” suitcase into the place that it was designed to travel in? What has happened to the days when every paying passenger was allocated a baggage weight and only charged for the extra weight? Here, I will try to answer a few of those questions; there exists a slice of population who seem able to break a law of fundamental physics, and stuff as much gub as would last a family for a month into a so-called cabin-sized bag. I bow to their super-powers certainly, but I kick my earth-bound heels at the effect this talent has upon an ordinary mortal like me. I once helped such a person wheel her well-stuffed, cabin-sized bag to the airport. For all the wrong reasons, it was a memorable experience. It was like trying to balance a lead weight on a bendy twig. If I lost concentration for one second, the bag element of the luggage wobbled out of control, taking its own course and threatening to take me with it. And as for lifting the thing, the weight was such that my shoulders ached for days afterwards. I ask another question: what is the point of living in the air age if we have to be built like Neanderthals in order to avail of air travel? Why can’t I travel in the company of my taller, slimmer, much-easier-to-handle suitacase without having to pay half the ticket price again to check it into the hold, in both directions? In summary, why am I being penalised for what should surely be an facility intrinsic to travelling? Can anyone tell me why?

Monday, 21 March 2022

The Seven Ages of Man

Time, time, time: never enough of it, is there? As a species, we haven’t used our alotted years too badly. Just look at our collective achievements in the past, er, 15,000 years.
Nomadic Man
Man, as a species, has definable cultural and historical markers. In the beginning, we had nomadic man, the hunter-gatherer. Humans moved in groups from place to place, hunting and foraging. Agriculture came into being roughly 10,000 years ago. With man settled, and living in towns and cities, and producing and consuming goods, the need for a sophisticated form of information exchange was born.
Classical Man
Cuneiform, the earliest form of script writing, emerged in Sumeria about 3,000 years ago. The power of the word gave birth to the Classical age. Man, know thyself, said Socrates, who lived between 469 and 399 BC. From this cauldron of thought came the notion of man as a thinking entity, one that could actually know and improve himself, as opposed to being merely the plaything of mythical deities. Great world books, like the Bible, followed. Christianity was born of the merging of the Old and New Testaments, while the verses of the Koran were produced by the prophet Mohammed between 610 and 632 AD.
Medieval Man
By the Middle Ages, religion was firmly in place. Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire and faith was at the centre of everything. Centres of learning and medicine were attached to monastic communities, and were administered by monks and clerics. Schools and hospitals, as we know them today, stemmed from this collection of information. Belief in the supernatural was the world, and the world could only be understood through God. But by the 1400s, the winds of change were already blowing through the western world. Renaissance Man
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings. This quote of from Julius Ceaser, by William Shakespeare, was first performed in 1599. Although the Bard peppered his plays with gods and monsters, the age of magic and superstition was over. The sixteenteenth century had been the age of exploration, scientific discovery and technological advance. With Galileo's development of the telescope in the early 1600s, stars were now objects to observe and quantify, not deities that ruled man.
Enlightenment Man
I think, therefore I am, wrote Rene Descartes (1596-1650). By now, the scientific discoveries of the Renaissance had come to fruition. Man accepted that Earth was no longer the centre of the universe, and that it traveled around the sun with the other planets. The old, ecclesiastical model of the universe had been vanquished forever and replaced with a new mode of thinking. A ‘mechanical’ model had been propounded by English scientist and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton. His studies of time and motion led to his publication of the Principia Mathematica in 1687, a work of reference that is still in use today.
Communication Man
Until the early nineteenth century, men of learning were deemed to be 'natural philosophers'. But with the emerging disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, the word 'scientist' was now in use, and the older phrase was consigned to history. One of the defining traits of humanity is our adeptness at amassing and communicating information. By the nineteeth century, the technology was in place for the age of mass-communication. It is arguable whether this began with the penny post (1840), or the development of the telegraph (1837), or Guglielmo Marconi's utilising of radio waves (c. 1901).
The Twentieth Century
Roughly speaking, mass communication - and travel - has been with us for the past one hundred and fifty years, facilitated in the twentieth century by telephone, television and the Internet. Our ability to communicate as individuals and en masse, worldwide and at any time, has behoved us to scrutinise our humanity. There are very few differences between the various tranches of humanity, apart from the superficialities that we acknowledge; race, colour, religion, social standing. Mass communication makes us all at once very individual, and yet supremely able to think and act in unison. It is this paradox that points to the next age, one in which we will once again be nomads.
Cosmic Man
This solar system and all of its planets will not endure forever. This does include planet Earth. Now and again, a team of scientists, somewhere, discovers an Earth-like planet in our galaxy that may support life - and as we know it! We are on the verge of moving into the cosmos. This means putting all of our petty differences behind us, and working as a team. It will mean developing and utilising the talents of every man and woman, regardless of whether they occupy 'celebrity' status. It will be a tough undertaking, fraught with challenge and danger - but remember what John F Kennedy said about our forays into space travel: not because they are easy, but because they are hard....

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Dear Diary....

31 December: I have made a decision, a resolution, in fact. The time is come. This is the year. I am going to give up (all this extravagant?) living and buy my own house. This includes Netflix-gazing, coffee-drinking and hair washing, you know, all of those things that we DON’T REALLY NEED. This will save a fortune. I’ve told my friends to try this too.
21 January: Good news. Money has been pouring into my bank account. I have saved £25.71 since the beginning of the year. Bad news. My boss has given me notice. Sales have fallen since January 1. “Don’t people drink our exotic coffees any more?” she wails. “We can’t sustain the marketing department - I am sorry. You will have to go.”
I am sad, but I see this as AN OPPORTUNITY.
1 February: I have removed from the Big Smoke to a TINY VILLAGE. But living there was draining all of my resources and anyway, I was fed up of all of that urban posturing and pretentiousness. No one here will notice that my hair isn’t washed. And even though I don’t have a job, that £25.71 will go a long way towards keeping me until I find one.
6 February: It does: at Ye Little Olde Village Shoppe, I spend it all on a stick of artisan bread and a jar of exotic pasta sauce. But why be down? The man in the shop is friendly and good-looking. Like me, he is down from London. “Came down a year ago,” he says. “Trying to save money. Want to buy my own house. But I am not lonely. I know five hundred other people here like us, trying to buy a house. Half the village population, by the way. Oddly, house prices have soared here since. My advice: wash your hair, else you won’t find a job. And don’t stop buying artisan bread sticks or exotic pasta sauce. Else, I will be out of a job.” (to be continued)

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

The Seven Phases of the Year

Happy new 2022, everyone. The year is 11 days old and already, I feel the absence of that first flush of optimism that arises when the midnight bells ring it in. And that is the first phase of the new year. The next phase is the realisation that we are all still in the middle of a cold and gloomy winter, and that three months stand between us and more clement weather. Phase three comes about, at last, as fluffy lambs skip and gambol in green fields and the bells ring again, this time for Easter. Phase four, and the first heat wave of the year sends us all scudding for the sun block and the straw hats. And phase five is the following, cooler weather when we troop to work and college, kicking up mounds of crisp, fallen leaves as we walk. Phase six sees short, dark days and long nights, tales of ghouls and ghosts around bonfires. And phase seven is Christmas time once more, when the year turns once again and we all anticipate a better (Covid-free?) year, as we hope this one will be. Happy 2022, everyone.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Chocolate Blog

What is heavenly sweet and deliciously creamy, made of cacao and flavoured with ginger and almonds and raisins and nuts and orange and lemon and a host of other ingredients that bespeak exotic climes – or a combination of any of these – and tastes divine at any time of the year but especially when days are cold and short and dark and the favoured pastime is reclining on a couch, sharing said delicacy with family and friends? Who makes an increduble version of this delicacy and has a concession in Harrods and a delightful boutique store at 33 Smiths Court (off of Brewer Street) in Soho? Tis the season to visit the William Curley Patesserie and Choclatier and select from an incomparable range of luxury chocolates and other quality confectionery. Better still, follow this link to the website and read the amazing story of the man who began it all, and take a preview peek at the mouth-watering products on offer.
Meanwhile, merry Christmas to all readers.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Wilko's Mouthwatering Handwash

Strawberry and pomegranate….doesn’t the sound of that combo just set your mouth a-watering? Google it, and you will find that it infiltrates every product from ice-cream to salads, and ciders. But the one that I am focussing upon is Wilko’s fabulous strawberry and pomegranate handwash. A dash of luxury in the midst of austerity, the soap is packaged in a smart dispensing flagon, with an eminently functional hand pump. One squirt and a glorious bouquet of said ingredients meets your nose. Silky-smooth on your palms, it performs the cleansing process expertly. In addition to this quality, it glows like a bauble in the gloom of my winter-darkened bathroom. Indeed, you could pop a flagon in a gift stocking or hang one off the branch of a Christmas tree, ready for a loved one to seize upon. Nor will it bust your seasonal piggy-bank. Retailing at 75 pence for 250ml, it comes with a companion shower gel. On reflection, it probably tastes just as good as it smells, but I will decline that gustatory experience and wait for the ice-cream and cider, instead.