Author Archives: donbrown

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The Ravens of the Tower of London

Just about everyone knows the legend of the Tower of London ravens; that should they leave the fortress then it and, by extension, the entire kingdom, will fall.

It’s meant to be recorded that when the astronomer John Flamsteed (who had set up his telescope in the White Tower) complained to Charles II that the birds were impeding his work and had to go, that the king insisted the ravens stay and that Flamsteed must relocate. This is why the Royal Observatory ended up in Greenwich. (Another version of the story has it that it was Charles himself who wanted the ravens removed and it was Flamsteed who intervened on their behalf.)

Even earlier, the ravens were said to be present at the execution of Anne Boleyn, falling silent on the battlements of the Tower as if knowing the momentousness of a queen’s execution.

The only small problem is – well, all the legends are nonsense, at best late Victorian inventions, at worst cooked up by some imaginative Yeoman Warders some time after WW2. Continue reading

clapham common bandstand

Clapham Common Bandstand

Oh for just a bit of the civic pride that built bandstands, and a wee bit of the sense of community that put on regular band concerts within them.

The Clapham Common bandstand for example, built in 1889 after the locals petitioned the London County Council. It cost £600 to erect and, twice a week – Wednesday afternoons and Sundays – one could stroll over to the common and hear a concert, presumably for free.  Continue reading

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The Coronation Chair

Whenever I’m taking Americans around Westminster Abbey, I like to mention that when Columbus stumbled across the Americas, King Edward’s Chair (commonly known as the Coronation Chair) was already nearly 200 years old; when the rebellious colonists laid out their Declaration of Independence, some two dozen monarchs had already sat here to be crowned.

It really is that old – created in 1300/01, used in its first coronation (of Edward II) in 1307. It predates all but one of the objects in the Crown Jewels (the Coronation Spoon), and comes from a time before the concept of ‘Britain’ or a’United Kingdom’ exercised any minds. Elizabeth II sat in it in June 1953, as did Elizabeth I in January 1559. Charles III will be crowned in it, as were Charles I and II; Henry VIII, Richard III, Henry V and most of those other kings you remember from Shakespeare were crowned in it. English history is in its very grain. Continue reading

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The India Club

Dishoom does the ‘Indian Cafe’ experience very well indeed, and if you’re prepared to queue, serves some great tasting food and impressive cocktails. But if you want the echt rather than the ersatz, then head on over to the Somerset House side of the Strand and try and find the India Club Restaurant.

It must be 30 years since I was last here, but climbing the two floors – past the India Club bar and the Strand Continental Hotel reception on the first floor – and stepped into the room again, it was if I’d never been away. The brown Formica tables and the wooden chairs are almost certainly the exact ones I sat in in the 1980s (and probably the originals from the restaurant’s opening in the 1940s). The waiters were too young to be the same, but their white jackets and their welcome was exactly how I remember it. Continue reading

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Behind the glass at the Churchill War Rooms

cabinet-war-rooms-3Already a huge hit with visiting Americans, the queues for the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are only going to get longer with the releases of the Darkest Hour movie.

The film is set in the early days of Churchill’s wartime premiership when debate in the Cabinet was whether to sue for peace with Hitler. It is no understatement to say that the entire course of 20th century history would have been utterly different had such an outcome occurred.

The movie wasn’t filmed in the War Rooms, but meticulously recreated them, even down to the peeling paint on the wooden supports of the map room.

“This is the room from which I shall conduct the war”, Churchill famously said of the basement-level Cabinet Room itself, but only around a quarter of wartime cabinet meetings were actually held in the space, at times when the threat from bombing – and the later ‘V’ weapons – was most acute. But the complex was staffed by hundreds throughout the course of the war, an essential bureaucracy of information-gathering and coordination. Had the Germans landed, this would have been one of the first places to get the news, and the initial response to any invasion would have been organised here. Continue reading

Chiappa “organ builders” at Eyre Street Hill in EC1.

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Apparently they’ve been here since 1877, when this would have been the heart of London’s ‘Little Italy’, the area around Saffron Hill and the Clerkenwell Road. The Italian church of St Peter’s is just round the corner. Each July it still holds the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a bit of Italian Catholic cultural tradition on the streets of London.

Spring Offensive

This review dates from April 2017 and is the Clapham Omnibus production. It first appeared on the Essential Surrey website.

spring-offensive-sheep_v2-high-res-copyApril runs a guesthouse on the site of an old WW1 field hospital, catering to the ‘war tourists’ visiting the battlefields and graveyards of the western Front.

Despite it being the start of the season, she has only two guests – Pam, who has spent all her adult life living with and caring for her mother, and Tom, a former military man who runs battlefield tours and sells souvenir tat (“we went to Ypres and all I got was this lousy mug”). In this new play by Victoria Willing, we watch the three bicker and quarrel as they await the arrival of other guests and the return of April’s son. As the evening progresses, the atmosphere turns poisonous and we learn more about the motivations, the secrets and the histories of the protagonists. Continue reading

Don Giovanni

This review dates from November 2016 and refers to the Glyndebourne Company’s production at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking. It first appeared on the Essential Surrey website.

don-giovanniTickets for the summer season at Glyndebourne sell out remarkably swiftly, so the opportunity to see the Glyndebourne company on tour is not one to be missed. Last night’s performance of Don Giovanni at Woking’s New Victoria theatre did not disappoint, with a strong orchestra conducted by Pablo Gonzalez, wonderful singing – particularly in the ensemble pieces – and a striking and ingenious staging.

Mozart’s anti-hero is a man with no moral scruple, his catalogue of sexual conquests numbering thousands, and the women he can’t seduce he takes by force. The opera opens with his attempted rape of the noblewoman Donna Anna, whose screams alert her father the Commendatore, whom Giovanni murders – in this production most brutally, battering him to death.

Giovanni and his servant Leporello (a fine performance from Brandon Cedel) flee into the night, leaving Anna (sublimely sung by Ana Maria Labin) and her fiancé Ottavio swearing vengeance on the murderer. The Commendatore will be Giovanni’s nemesis. Continue reading

A Room With a View

This review dates from October 2016. The production was seen at the Richmond Theatre.

a-room-with-a-viewA Room With a View is a visually interesting, but wordy and emotionally unengaging adaptation of the E M Forster novel.

Lucy Honeychurch – a young middle-class Edwardian woman – is visiting Florence with her older, spinster cousin Charlotte Bartlett as chaperone. There are suffragettes on the streets of London, but ‘ladies’ are still expected to follow the Victorian rules surrounding ‘class’, social status and polite behaviour.

In their pensione Lucy and Charlotte meet George Emerson and his father – socialists and humanists, with radical ideas about religion, sexual equality and life. The snobbish Charlotte rebuffs the approaches of the lower middle class Emersons, but Lucy falls for George and, on a day trip to the Tuscan countryside, kisses him. Charlotte is mortified and whisks Lucy away from Florence.

Continue reading