Saturday, January 3, 2015

London in December

Abney Cemetery, surrounded by busy streets.


I was in London with my son and his family for the holidays, and I was reminded of the complex forms creativity takes. It finds expression in untold ways—by the way we fold a napkin; comb our hair; answer the phone; sign our name. Everything’s alike but nothing’s the same. Cities are alike but none are the same.

Granddaughters and cakes at Glissold Park
London, in particular, is different from any city where I’ve lived.* Its residential and commercial districts seem to merge naturally. There are trees and green spaces around every corner. And so are public parks, playgrounds, and benches for sitting. 

In the midst of the crowded streets of Stoke Newington is Clissold Park where my granddaughters run and play. There are slides, swings, and such, but also fenced chickens, deer, and other animals; canals; paths about the meadow-like grounds; and a manor house turned into a café where we took tea and cakes.

London, perhaps because of its size and history, is favorable to the arts. While I was there, I attended several performances that were located less than an hour from my son’s home in Stoke Newington. Here’s where I went.

Mother Goose, billed as “London’s No. 1 Pantomime” and informally called a panto, played at the Hackney Empire. This wasn’t a pantomime of gestures—rather, singing and dancing to Vaudevillian banter. The music shamelessly borrowed from pop songs. The jokes mocked the local customs of Hackney. Of the outrageous costumes that competed with the settings and script, one in particular (a gold wig) stole the spotlight.

Puppetry that appeals to both children and adults is a tall order, but the Little Angel Theatre in Islington pulled it off. A performance of Jabberwocky turned a seven-verse poem into an hour of theater. 

Other than a recitation of the poem at the beginning, there was no dialogue. However, a sound track of whispered words, a plaintive violin, and bongo drums communicated the plight of the boy who set off to slay the Jubjub bird, Bandersnatch, and Jabberwock, by which time the monsters had mutated into something of a seafaring creature.

Singing in the Rain
Upstairs at the Gatehouse proved that even a pub can put on a show. It also proved that a song and dance performance could be staged on a 14’ X 40’ strip. I sat on the third of about ten rows of seats and could have touched the actors, had I reached out my hand.

High Street in Stoke Newington
A photo exhibit at the Barbican provided visual evidence that creative architects have built structures that please as well as offend the eye. Whether or not we appreciate them, designs have ranged from cubes for habitation in the 1950s to skyscrapers. 

Photographs by Nadav Kander were included in the show. His book Dust is a haunting display of city ruins left from Russian nuclear tests sites in Kazakhstan.

My son bought tickets for us to see the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth’s Symphony. Some 80 musicians brought to life what Beethoven created 160 years ago. There wasn’t an empty seat at the Barbican Centre where I sat and marveled at Beethoven’s imagination and the power of music to transcend time. It occurred to me that for every person playing in the orchestra, there were probably thousands of other musicians just as devoted to music as these. There were probably hundreds as talented. Why is it that these particular people made it to the London stage and an audience of thousands?

The vagaries of life…it’s what writers write about. In the nonfiction book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell uses data to support his premises regarding why some of us succeed while others, who may be just as gifted, fail. He admits that luck is a factor in achieving success. As we begin 2015, I plan to continue to improve my writing skills should luck look my way.

Swans forging icy waters at Clissold Park.

*Norfolk, Williamsburg, and Richmond (VA); Oak Park, Lombard, Wilmette (Chicago, IL); Brussels (Belgium), Atlanta (GA), and Columbia (SC)

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