The Cabinet Room at the Churchill War Rooms

 

My Instagram Live talk from today about the Cabinet Room in the Central War Rooms and how it was used in WW2.

“This is the room from which I shall direct the war” said Winston Churchill in May 1940. Click on ‘play’ to hear about the set up, the atmosphere, the tense meetings and arguments that took place beneath the streets of Westminster, and to see some of the incredible artefacts that have been preserved in the space.

The rooms were recreated in the studio for the Darkest Hour movie but – spoiler alert – the climactic meeting between Churchill and those who wanted to negotiate with Hitler didn’t take place here (The Blitz had not started at that point, so cabinet meetings were still being held in Downing Street.)

Churchill War Rooms

With us all locked down it’s impossible to do tours at present, so I’ll be experimenting with some online tours. This is the first effort (at the risk of underselling it, I’m hoping they’ll improve with practice) – an introduction to the Churchill War Rooms.

I’ll do a couple more on the Cabinet Room and the Map Room in the next couple of weeks, but this one attempts to set the context for their creation and introduce a couple of characthers that you may not have heard of.

The US Embassy, Nine Elms

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Don’t call it a moat.

Let’s be clear about that from the start; it’s not a moat – it’s a lake. Well, that’s according to the US Embassy.

We’re talking about the stretch of water that separates the main embassy building (or, more properly, the ‘Chancery’ of the Embassy) from the road. There’s a patch of green space that one can walk through and a cascading fountain. It doesn’t surround the building, but its purpose is for security, a further level of protection from anyone driving a car or truck from the road towards the main structure. That makes it a moat in my book.

The effect is reinforced by the cuboid nature of the building, one which echoes the medieval keeps of castles – think of William the Conqueror’s White Tower – and one can even see aspects of Iron Age forts in the earthworks that hide protective concrete bollards. Continue reading

Richmond’s Blue Plaques

After last month’s stroll past some of the more prominent plaques in Putney, another piece, this time on the residents of Richmond upon Thames. This should appear in April’s The Richmond Magazine.

richmond-2Given its size and history, the town of Richmond has surprisingly few ‘official’ English Heritage blue plaques, those roundels that commemorate where a famous person once lived or worked. And there isn’t a body – such as the Wandsworth or Putney societies – that puts up is own memorials, so the town seems a little bashful about its historic residents.

But perhaps what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. In Paradise Road, for example, a plaque shows where Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded the Hogarth Press. Mainly associated with Bloomsbury, the Woolfs lived in Richmond between 1917 and 1924 and while there Virginia published various stories and her novel ‘Jacob’s Room’. Not too far away on Richmond Hill a plaque marks where the actor Celia Johnson – star of Brief Encounter among many other 1940s and 50s films – was born. Continue reading

Scientists’ Corner, Westminster Abbey

isaac newton westminster abbeyYou’ve almost certainly heard of Poets’ Corner, the spot within Westminster Abbey given over to the commemoration of the nation’s authors, poets and playwrights. Amongst dozens of others you’ll find Chaucer’s tomb, plaques to Edward Lear, Wordsworth, D H Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, the graves of Dickens and Browning, a statue of Shakespeare and the bust of Longfellow, windows to the memory of Marlowe, Oscar Wilde and Mrs Gaskell.

But it’s not the only such grouping within the Abbey. There’s ‘musicians’ aisle’, the ‘statesmen’s aisle’ and, in front of the choir screen that divides the nave, ‘scientists’ corner’.

This is the group of graves and memorials centred on the grave and commemorative statue to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the eminent scientist of the period. Responsible for advances in mathematics, optics, physics, astronomy; deviser of calculus, laws of motion and gravitational theory, he is one of the towering figures of science. “Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni” says the epitaph on the grey marble slab that covers him: “here lies what was mortal of Isaac Newton”. The English translation is repeated on the nearby memorial stone to Stephen Hawking, a successor to Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Hawking’s ashes were interred in the Abbey in 2018. Continue reading

The King of Corsica

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St Anne’s churchyard is a small patch of open ground at the Shaftesbury Avenue end of Wardour Street, Soho.

Once the hang out of druggies and al-fresco drinkers, it’s now a pleasant enough quiet spot in a crowded part of the city, and even on the grey, chilly March day I wandered in there, there were plenty of people sat eating their lunches.

The essayist William Hazlitt is buried in the churchyard (he died in Frith Street – his old home now a very expensive hotel) as is Theodore I of Corsica, who has an epitaph on a plaque on the tower wall, written by Horace Walpole: Continue reading

Farm Street Church

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The Victorians loved the medieval. The ‘gothic revival’ actually started earlier – in the late 1700s/early 1800s as a reaction to classicism – but it was mid-century that saw it flourish.

For many, this architectural style is far too ‘fussy’ – there is just too much detail, colour, decoration, too much of everything. But despite the best efforts of many architects, planners and developers in the mid-20th century, much of the Victorian Gothic survives. Think of the work of George Gilbert Scott – the Midland Hotel at St Pancras; St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington; the Albert Memorial – or Street’s Royal Courts of Justice, or the elaborate detailing outside and inside the House of Parliament. Continue reading

London’s Green Parakeets

parakeet-1Perhaps 15 years ago, I was sat by the river in East Molesey, just past Hampton Court. Across the water the trees on the opposite bank were full of bright green parrots, the first time I had seen these now ubiquitous London birds.

Two or three years later they started appearing in Richmond Park; less than ten years ago the first colonists put in an appearance on Tooting and Clapham Commons. They now cover the city, west to east, south to north, their characteristic squawk being heard in all of London’s green spaces, as literal flocks of them cross the skies. It’s estimated that there are now anything up to 30,000 of them, with the population growing rapidly. Continue reading

Review – Matthew Bourne’s ‘The Red Shoes’

This review appeared on the Essential Surrey website in February 2020.

I’m in serious danger of becoming a fanboy for Matthew Bourne’s ‘New Adventures’ company. Their ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a beautifully realised, beautifully danced reimagining of the classic ballet, and their ‘Swan Lake’, with its all-male ensemble of swans, is rightly famous. The company now gives us their take on Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film ‘The Red Shoes’, which is considered one of the greatest-ever British movies.

Young ballerina Victoria Page joins Boris Lermontov’s company at the same time as aspiring composer Julian Craster. They both succeed and she becomes principal ballerina in Craster’s ballet ‘The Red Shoes’, their artistic triumph mirrored by their falling in love. Continue reading

The Matchbox

This review from Essentially Surrey is from September 2019 and the production at Clapham Omnibus.

Angela Marray gives a bravura performance in Frank McGuiness’s emotionally charged study of pain and loss. Don Brown sees The Match Box at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre.

Sal is living on a small island off the coast of Kerry. She is physically isolated – she’s left her English home and friends to live in the place from where her Irish parents emigrated. She endures (or has constructed) emotional isolation, removed from the lives of her cousins, aunts and uncles.

Over the 100 minutes of the play, we unpick the layers of Sal’s secret, as the story turns through loss, grief, absence and revenge to a catharsis of sorts, as Sal acknowledges her deep emotional pain caused by the shocking death of her 12-year-old daughter.

Compulsively lighting matches, Sal reflects on how we don’t know how long each match will burn. Each has “its own time to flare… its own span of life”, and in the first half of the play, this seems an obvious metaphor for the life of her child. But as Sal’s story progresses this burning hints at something altogether less metaphorical: “ I’m the smell of sulphur or brimstone…come near me and I will burn you.”

Frank McGuiness’s play is a gruelling study of how we deal with extreme grief and loss, of a woman who has “a hole where my heart was”. It’s a one-woman show, with Sal (Angela Marray) talking directly to the audience throughout, occasionally inhabiting other characters in Sal’s life – her mother, father, friends and acquaintances.

Marray captures the emotions of Sal wonderfully, with an expressive face and physicality, taking us further into Sal’s suffering. Occasionally the words that are spoken don’t seem to belong to Sal, but I think this is an issue with the play itself – at times it seems more like a short story to be read rather than a play to be performed.