Sunday, June 26, 2011

Britain and Britten

Ahhh....summer at last.

This “summer” weather in London is mighty teasing -- one minute the sun shines and the sky is light, the next dark clouds roll over and it rains for a while. But I am enjoying the long, long evenings with light until 10.30 pm at night. The summer solstice has now passed - it fell on 22 June this year - but I hope that the long days continue.

Trafalgar Square. Just in case you didn't recognise it.
Taking advantage of the good walking weather that momentarily appeared one morning, a visiting friend and I set out on a tourist circuit: Trafalgar Square, the Mall, St James’ Park, Buckingham Place, Westminster, the Thames, Southbank...and a pub for lunch. What could be more British? Not that the crowds were British - ‘tis the season to be touristing, it seems, with the palaces, museums, galleries and sights crowded to the gills with touring folk, principally American, if my morning’s walk is anything to go by. Though the queue for the London Eye was so long that it could have held people from all the nations of the world.

Pseudo-beach on Southbank

Somewhat pitifully, I thought (considering the grey sludge of the Thames passing below) an attempt has been made to turn a short section of Southbank into the seaside, complete with sand for making sandcastles, and seaside food like fish & chips and ice cream sold from retro vans. Perhaps it doesn’t look quite as pitiful if the sun is really shining and the umbrellas can be furled.

Retro fish & chips

They're changing guard at know the rest

Strolling along The Mall to the sound of a military band I realized that we had chanced upon the Changing of the Guard. On my last attempt to see this ritual I had stood for half an hour squashed by Eastern European tourists, and seen very little. On this unplanned occasion I wandered along with the jovial Americans and saw quite a bit of the parade from the back stalls, as it were. “You mean they do this every day?” my visiting companion asked. Yes - every day in the summer and every two days in the winter. Whether or not Her Maj is in residence, I believe.

British icons

As Big Bell tolled midday we inspected the front entrance of Westminster Abbey and contemplated the very door through which the Royal Couple had so recently emerged as man & wife. Then we dodged the tourists and took a walk through the Dean’s Yard and the backstreets - possibly the most attractive thing about London is its streets, backstreets included. 

The park was looking particularly splendid (possibly because of all the rain) and the park guardians have helpfully provided striped deck chairs for those who would like to attempt a tan. What a good idea. I spotted this same amenity in The Regent’s Park the other day when I went to check on the roses. I had seen them as winter-time sticks and now I saw them almost full-blown. Oops - have to be quick, nearly missed ‘em. 



The pub lunch proved to be like so many - Olde English ambiance done very well, food done passably only, beer excellent. Two outta three ain’t bad.

Traditional pub

To round off a British day, a British opera, by Britten. Benjamin Britten - he who wrote ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that I saw a few days ago; but this time there wasn’t even a fairy chance of light-heartedness, because this was ‘Peter Grimes’. The story is of a fisherman ostracized by his small community, the Borough, because a small boy apprenticed to him dies. This turns from bad to worse when a second boy get the drift. This production was bleak, black, grey, and frankly a little tired looking. I don’t know about you, but for me the drama goes out of the moment when the set wobbles a bit or I can see the creases in the backcloth. Time to retire this one, in my opinion - which is possibly coloured by perhaps the best ‘Peter Grimes’ ever, that which I saw performed in Sydney last year with the magnificent Stuart Skelton singing Grimes. Speaking of Grimes, at Covent Garden he was sung by the big name tenor, Ben Heppner. But I have to report some disappointment there too - a few problems with his singing, and his acting merely competent. Others say they were happier - I refer to the Guardian review - but rate the production over all as disappointing.

Ben Heppner at Peter Grimes
"convincingly neurotic"... I think that's a compliment.

I must say, though, it is never disappointing to hear the music of Benjamin Britten. The last strains of ‘Peter Grimes’ (it has an inexpressibly sad ending) are so haunting, and stay in your head for ages after you have left the theatre. This was the first opera I ever say, back in the late 1980s in Sydney, and it was this haunting beauty that converted me on the spot into an opera lover.

So raise your lager (or your bitter) to Britain and Britten, and let’s all hope for some sunshine sometime this summer!

The Dean's Yard, Westminster Abbey.


  1. Just FYI, the Opera Australia Grimes in Sydney - which I would totally agree was the best ever! - was not the same as the ENO one. Stuart sang the title role in both, but the ENO production was a new one by David Alden, and the OA one was a new co-production (OA, West Australian Opera, Houston) by Neil Armfield. My apologies if you knew this already and I misread you!
    I envy you your London adventures, it's such a wonderful city.