London lessons Thursday, Apr 3 2008 

I studied in London for a year but spent much of that time doing, er, studying. I can’t say that I’ve properly experienced the city as a true Londoner. Oh, I’ve done the usual tourist suspects – Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Hampton Court, &c. But apart from occasional visits to Leicester Square for food/gatherings, I’d never really taken advantage of the unique, simple pleasures that living in London offers. Dropped into a random church just out of curiosity, say; or spent a weekend exploring the British National Museum. It was only great good luck that enabled me to revisit London on two work-related occasions in the past 6 months. And this time, with the help of my York-born but London-living friend, I had a few successes in my quest to stop experiencing London as a tourist and learnt a few things along the way.

interior of the victoria & albert museum

1. Visits to (free) art galleries are like balm for the soul. My fourth trip to the National Gallery reminded me of the beauty of Sassoferrato’s work and the genius of Michelangelo and da Vinci. My maiden one to the Tate Britain confirmed that I can love modern art, key criteria being (a) ‘if it makes sense’ (as my dear friend pithily observed); (b) if it is aesthetically appealing. It also exposed me to the gorgeous works of John Piper and reaffirmed my fondness for the pre-Raphaelites. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also delightful, with its exhibits ranging from cartoons by Raphael to Islamic art, fashion, furniture, and E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.

2. A good classical concert can literally give one chills. I attended a ridiculously affordable concert (my seat with restricted views cost nine quid) by the extremely competent Vasari Singers held at the lovely (undergoing-restoration) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the baritone solos in Fauré’s Requiem literally raised goosebumps on my neck. I had no idea quite how famous the Vasari Singers are until I Googled them. This concert triggered a spell of massive re-listening to all my classical favourites, including J S Bach, Mozart and of course Fauré.

interior of st stephen walbrook

3. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a church service held in London. (Funny thing is, I can’t say the same for the church services I have attended in Singapore.) It so happened that when I entered the interestingly round church of St Stephen Walbrook – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – there was a service going on. Quite befittingly, the service ended with a quietly beautiful three-part mass by de Victoria, sung a cappella by an alto, tenor and bass. The whole experience was clean and elegant – not unlike the church itself.

hampstead heath

4. It’s lovely to have easily accessible parks to pop into fresh out of a tube station. There’s the Hyde, the Regent’s, and of course, the (Hampstead) Heath. It was winter and the trees were skeletal, but the green alone was pretty and peaceable. In a similar vein, London gardens can be jolly nice – I envy the English their varieties of native plants.

charing cross tube station

5. The London Underground, despite frequent delays, suspensions, surprise closures and tonnes of stairs, is really an excellent way to get around because of the density of the stations, especially in central London. What the Tube doesn’t adequately cover, the buses make up for, which is a great credit to the city’s public transportation system. (Love Ian Bostridge too – where else would you find an advertisement for one of his concerts?)

hampstead village

6. And yet the great thing about London is that you can have a rather fulfilling everyday life without walking further than 20 minutes from your home. The ‘village’ concept is still in force; you can generally find a good array of shops, food places offering varied cuisines, Starbucks, your local bank, the parish church, and even a cinema. I watched the excellent ‘Michael Clayton’ at the Swiss Cottage Odeon on a Saturday evening and it was lovely to be able to walk home discussing it.

Irving Stone – Lust for Life Sunday, Jan 14 2007 

Vincent van Gogh, Four Cut Sunflowers, 1887. Scan obtained from the wonderful Carol Gerten’s Fine Art.

A while back I made my way through Irving Stone’s 1935 fictionalised biography of Vincent van Gogh – presented in fiction form, but based on Stone’s first-hand research and meetings with the people in van Gogh’s life. I daresay that is a one of the most palatable, readable forms of biography possible, especially for one who doesn’t much like biographies. This was no doubt one of the reasons that I actually picked up Lust for Life in the first place: as a casual appreciator of fine art I am fond of a few paintings by van Gogh (check out his stunning Four Cut Sunflowers above) but not a massive fan of his work. (Another reason was that I was completely blown away by The Agony and The Ecstasy – Stone’s equivalent biography for Michelangelo – when I read it years ago.)

I hate to say that Lust for Life demystified van Gogh for me. It did, but it’s just so darn cliché to say so! He seems to be a remarkable man first and foremost, and that makes him more endearing to me than he could ever be by being a great artist. (More on this another time.) Genius burned, to be sure, but he had to work on his craft – really work at it, like ordinary folks – and was plagued not just by the naysayers (who are unavoidable, I suppose) but by his own insecurities about his artistic ability. How refreshing to see, metaphorically speaking, a painfully earnest, socially awkward, religious-then-overtaken-by-a-higher-calling, communist-then-reminded-of-his-higher-calling, fellow, with feeling for human creatures – especially the simplest and humblest of them. As opposed to (say) a sophisticated, literary-verging-on-the pretentious, obnoxiously self-confident Artist who is supremely self-conscious not just of being an Artist but also of being a Great one.

Theo sent… the admonition to work hard and not become a mediocre artist. To this advice Vincent replied, ‘I shall do what I can, but mediocre in its simple signification I do not despise at all. And one certainly does not rise above that mark by despising what is mediocre. But what you say about hard work is certainly right.’

With regards to the actual art, Irving Stone perceives the most salient quality in van Gogh’s work to be a sense of the life and energy bursting from his subjects (be they trees or people), a sense of inherent ‘power’, conveyed by decisive brush strokes, thickly-laid paints and vibrant colours. I actually found this to be quite insightful, from the perspective of someone who has not studied art, whether in general or van Gogh’s in particular.

And learning about what van Gogh did in his lifetime – his stints in Paris, in Arles, in Provence, in the sanitarium; the people he met (the Potato-Eaters, the peasants wherever he went, Gauguin and various Impressionists) – imbues disparate works of art with a collective narrative quality. It’s strange. You do hear that good art stands on its own, but sometimes the art is better-appreciated, improved even, by some knowledge of the artist. I’ve found this to be true for popular music too. Anyway, this simply means that Lust for Life is a good read that also ups my enjoyment of something else. And that makes it cool in my book.