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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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I don’t know how to categorise Otis & Eunice at the Royal College of Music. It’s a story with music and dance told in two venues in two cities with a video link enabling it to move from one to the other or both simultaneously. A collaboration between six institutions – RCM, RAM, LAMDA, RADA, BOV Theatre School and Central School of Ballet – it proved to be a very welcome innovation indeed.

Classical Music

Where has Puccini’s Messa di Gloria been all my life? Written as a graduation piece, it’s a very original setting of the mass and the LSO & LSC under Antonio Pappano at the Barbican gave it their all. A piece by his teacher Ponchielli and a rarely heard Verdi string quartet expanded for orchestra (which he knocked up while waiting for his Aida sopranos to get better!) completed a thoroughly satisfying concert.

Contemporary Music

On an impulse, at two hours’ notice, I dumped a theatre ticket to go and see Roy Harper at the London Palladium in what will probably prove to be one of his final shows. It was at times rambling and ragged, and he now struggles with his trademark high notes, but it was littered with gems which more than made up for it, three new songs that proved he hasn’t lost his song writing ability and waves of warmth and love from an audience for whom, like me, he is clearly part of the soundtrack of their lives.

Dance

The six BalletBoyz dancers were mesmerising in their double-bill Them/Us at Sadler’s Wells and I loved the music from both Keaton Henson for Us and Charlotte Harding for Them. It was particularly good to see that they choreographed Them themselves. Every BalletBoyz show brings something new and inventive and this was no exception.

For his latest work at Sadler’s Wells, the ever so eclectic Russell Maliphant takes his inspiration for The Thread from traditional Greek dance, with a score by Vangelis no less. Some have called it Greek Riverdance and though there is a grain of truth in that, it was at times thrilling and at other times beautiful, though perhaps not sustaining its 80 minute length; perhaps a shorter version paired with a contrasting work might have been more satisfying. Michael Hulls’ lighting was as gorgeous as ever, though so dark it brought its challenges! Mary Katrantzou’s costumes were lovely.

Sometimes the most anticipated shows disappoint, and so it was with Pepperland at Sadler’s Wells. Only five songs from the album it purports to celebrate (+ Penny Lane) in poor arrangements, plus uninspired choreography. It was far from the 50th anniversary celebration I’d expected and fell flat on its face. I’m a big fan, but after two duds in a row, even I’m beginning to wonder if Mark Morris has gone off the boil.

At Sadler’s Wells again, Northern Ballet Theatre’s Victoria maintains their outstanding reputation for dance drama in a great piece of storytelling, with inventive chorography, beautiful design and a glorious score played live by their orchestra. The biggest treat of the four evenings there this month.

Film

The Basis of Sex was a lot better than the reviews suggested, but then I’m a sucker for sentimental underdog stories, though this one was about someone who did more for equal opportunity than probably anyone else, in the US at lease.

Almost every film I’ve seen this year has been based on a true story, but Fighting With My Family, about a Norwich wrestling family, is probably the most unlikely. It’s also very funny and heart-warming. A proper British feel-good film.

The Kid Who Would Be King may be a kids film, but I thought it was engaging, charming and an antidote to the seemingly endless march of Marvel tosh, and the special effects were brilliant!

Art

A lean month indeed! Just the annual Wildlife Photography Award Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, its usual feast of brilliant photography, with some new and different themes to keep it fresh.

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Opera

It wasn’t long into Semiramide at Covent Garden that I realised that I don’t really like Rossini’s brand of plinky-plonk music with frilly bits! I was lured by favourite mezzo Joyce DiDonato, but even her presence, and other fine singing and playing, couldn’t lure me back after the interval to this misguided production and more plinky-plonk music! 1h50m was enough, another 1h30m was beyond me.

Classical Music

Mezzo Cecilia Bartoli & Cellist Sol Gabetta, accompanied by the latter’s brother’s wonderful 18-piece ensemble, gave a recital at the Barbican Hall to promote their new CD. Though I admired the artistry, and thought the pairing worked well most of the time, I wasn’t that keen on the content or order of the programme, I’m afraid.

Britten Sinfonia put together two excellent but rarely performed choral pieces with a world premiere for orchestra to make a lovely evening at the Barbican Hall. Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms links it to his centenary and it seemed almost new here. Vaughn Williams Dona nobis pacem showed off the talents of the Choir of King’s College even more, with two wonderful soloists, Ailish Tynan and Neal Davies. I like seeing world premieres and Emma-Ruth Richards’ Sciamachy was an interesting new piece that deserves further hearing.

The LSO & LSC let their hair down in style at the Barbican with a concert version of Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town under Simon Rattle no less. You rarely hear a musical score played and sung so well, but they has fun with it too, taking the Act I conga finale through the audience, and again as an encore, this time collecting people along the way. I don’t always like opera singers doing musicals, but those here largely avoided the operatic frills. It was paired with Bernstein’s very different 2nd symphony, an inspired idea which worked brilliantly.

Film

My initial instinct not to see Murder on the Orient Express was proved correct as I found it slow and rather dull and unengaging, despite the nice tongue-in-cheek style and idiosyncratic camera angles.

The Florida Project was slow to grab me, but grab me it did, with its documentary-like examination of the US underclass, and it has some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen.

I enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi more than the previous instalment, partly because I didn’t see it in 3D and partly because it was more balanced between story and spectacle, working at an emotional level too.

Art

A disappointing afternoon at Tate Britain started with Impressionists in London which should really be titled 19th Century French artists in exile in London, because a lot weren’t impressionists (the term no doubt chosen to sell the show) and a lot weren’t of London. Not very well curated, I forgave it for a room of eight Monet London pictures brought together from eight different collections. Upstairs, Rachel Whiteread proved to be a one trick pony – a giant room of casts in concrete or resin. More is less….a lot less. We went on to the new V&A galleries for Opera: Passion, Power & Politics which redeemed the afternoon, an opera-lovers treat accompanied by gorgeous music which changed as you walked through. Lovely.

A wonderful morning at NPG followed the disappointing afternoon, with the revelatory Cezanne Portraits, from the man who I didn’t know did portraits, and the ever wonderful Taylor Wessing Photography Prize exhibition, better every year. After lunch, on to Every Thing at Once, a big exhibition of modern art installations and sculptures on three floors of an office block they are taking forever to renovate at 180 Strand. There was the usual tosh, but pieces by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Ai Wei Wei and the bonus of four other full room installations, two of which were terrific, made it a worthwhile visit.

Tove Jansson was a Finnish painter-turned-illustrator, most famous for creating the Moomins, and her retrospective exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery was fascinating. I could have done with more paintings, but she didn’t paint many after she turned illustrator!

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You might not believe this. It’s certainly one of the most surreal evenings I’ve spent in a theatre. A celebration of Japanese pop culture as a rave.

You are advised to check your coats and bags, wear a rain poncho and use (multi-coloured) ear plugs (both supplied). The seats in The Pit theatre have been covered in plastic. There’s an MC / warm-up man explaining what’s going to happen. You can take as many photos, videos or audio recordings as you like .The walls of the theatre are giant screens with continuous projections.

Twenty-five people, mostly women, rush in and start dancing, shouting and jumping around to very loud music. They walk amongst the audience, throw water, confetti and food, engaging with you close up. Glitter falls from the ceiling. There are well choreographed dance routines and ‘scenes’, one of which was a kitsch Les Mis pastiche that had me in hysterics, but some of the time it also appears to be entirely spontaneous.

In what seems like a few minutes, but was actually forty minutes, the whole audience are on the stage and the performers are in the audience. Then they disappear, the music stops and the lights go up. As you walk through the corridor back to the foyer, they are smiling at you, greeting, thanking, hi-fiving, hugging….. In the foyer, you wonder if that really happened, but you can’t stop smiling.

It was mayhem and pandemonium and I thought it was great fun – and the perfect pick-me-up after the referendum shock.

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March was a ‘lull before the storm’ work-wise, so it was action packed otherwise! In addition to 12 theatre outings…….

MUSIC

Performing your classic album live in its entirety has become fashionable with old rockers, so it was no surprise when John Cale decided to do it with Paris 1919, accompanied by an orchestra. It didn’t really take off until the third song, not every song worked well and given that it’s little over 30 minutes that doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying experience on its own. Fortunately, he followed this with four cracking numbers with his terrific three-piece band and another two with the orchestra – and a brilliant encore (which we had to earn!), so the evening (though still not much more than 80 minutes) was redeemed.

There’s a straight line from The Kinks through Squeeze, Madness and Blur to Lily Allen representing a modern soundtrack of London. ‘Songs in the Key of London’ was another one of those compilation shows which sort-of tried to do this (and included songs from all but the latter), put together by Squeeze’ Chris Difford. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed as well as other shows of its kind, largely because it was under-rehearsed and the sound was inexcusably bad. Other former Squeezers Jools Holland & Glen Tilbrook and Chas and Suggs from Madness took part, together with an eclectic selection of the less well known. It had its moments and the surprise appearance of Elvis Costello at the end to sing Hoover Factory and My Brilliant Parade was a treat, if only to see him on home soil again.

Cara Dillon’s St. Patrick’s Day concert in Canary Wharf was lovely, if a little short and in a somewhat incongruous venue. A guest appearance from Seth Lakeman was a real bonus and whetted my appetite for a long awaited opportunity to see a full set from him (now booked for the Open Air Theatre in September!).

Whilst most young musicians seem to spend their lives repeating the formula that made them successful, a 60-year old called Peter Gabriel who has spent his life reinventing and innovating is still at it! His concert at the O2 showcased the new album of ‘covers’ (re-interpretations, I’d say) with a full orchestra and no band; it worked surprisingly well live in such a big space. The second half was an unpredictable selection of old songs re-arranged for orchestra including great versions of San Jacinto and Solisbury Hill. Old men showing the way; who’d have thought it!

I hadn’t clocked that it was Mothers Day when I booked an afternoon concert of Rogers & Hammerstein songs at the Barbican with two of my favourite musical performers – Maria Friedman and Daniel Evans – so it was a bit cheesy & populist for my taste. Though it was great to hear these songs played by a full orchestra and the singing was good, the song choice was a bit predictable and safe and the amplification (for the second time this week at the Barbican!) was poor.

Showstopper! is an improvised musical put together on the spot, partly from audience suggestion. In fact, it’s the same formula as Impropera (which I saw in December), the Scat Pack’s improv movies and others. They are as good as the inspiration at the time and this wasn’t a classic, but it was worth the trip. We ended up with Blood on the Heather – the story of the Glencoe massacre where the McDonalds and the Campbells fought each other – with songs in the style of Cabaret, Annie, Rent, Abba and Sondheim!

More classically, I went to another mezzo soprano recital of English song at Wigmore Hall, this time Sarah Connelly with a lunchtime programme of Purcell, Howells, Gurney, Warlock, Bridge, Britten and songs by her accompanist Eugene Asti. It was a lovely selection and she sang beautifully.

Purcell’s Dioclesian is a rarely performed ‘semi-opera’ about the Roman emperor of the same name (who I got rather interested when I went to Split in Croatia where the city centre is built within the ruins of his retirement home!). The Royal College of Music paired with an ‘early dance’ group turned it into a delightful evening. It’s not up there with his classics like The Fairy Queen, but it was good to catch it. The amount of musical talent on show in their Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir (most of whom also took the solos) was breathtaking. 

Britten’s War Requiem is one of my favourite choral pieces and it got a wonderful outing at the Barbican on the 50th anniversary of the London Concert Choir. The soloists – Janice Watson, Adrian Thompson and Roderick Williams – were fantastic and the Southbank Sinfonia made a terrific sound. It’s the greatest anti-war music ever written and still relevant and moving.

OPERA

Its 17 years since I was last in Wandsworth Prison (!), for Pimlico Opera’s Guys & Dolls. This month I returned for the same company’s Carmen. It worked well almost halved to under 90 minutes (it makes you wonder how many operas would benefit from similar editing!) losing none of the story and none of the best music. The cast of 11 professionals (including four excellent principals) and 13 prisoners gave it their all and though it’s a sad story, it was an uplifting experience. When you look at the faces of the performing prisoners at the curtain call, they tell you everything about the importance of this experience for them; if it changes only one of them forever, it will have been worthwhile…..and as you start the long walk out, the funny comments shouted from the cells remind you how many other lost souls weren’t performing. On this occasion, I was struck by the fact that half of the prisoner cast were recent immigrants to the UK and I’m still puzzled as to why…

The Guildhall School have been on a roll of late, so perhaps it was inevitable that there’d be a blip, and Cherubin doesn’t really live up to recent form. Massenet’s opera picks up where Mozart left off in The Marriage of Figaro and follows the exploits of Cherubin as he enlists. It’s a much neglected piece – it took 89 years to get a UK premiere in 1994, and that was its last outing here! The chorus is very good, but there were fewer outstanding leads (except the gorgeous soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg again!) and the set was rather ugly.

The London Handel Festival puts on a fully stage opera every year (and there are c.45 to choose from!) and this year was the best I’ve seen, in fact one of the best Handel operas I’ve ever seen.  Il Pastor Fido is a ‘pastoral’ (you know…..gods and shepherds, everyone loving someone who doesn’t love them, but it all ends happily!) with a dance-opera prologue and dances to end each act. What made this stand out was the most faultless and beautiful playing and singing, aided by the Britten Theatre’s terrific acoustic. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen eight pitch perfect and perfectly matched performances; it was 190 minutes of gloriously uplifting music and it flew by.

Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos has created an opera from Tony Kushner’s extraordinary epic play Angels in America and very good it is too. It was given a semi-staged performance at the Barbican with the BBCSO and an excellent, mostly American, cast. He’s managed to distil it from over 6 hours to just over two without losing the essence of the play. I really hope it gets a staging here soon, as it has in France, Germany, The Netherlands and the US.

Katya Kabanova at ENO was a musical treat with superb singing and playing. The minimalist set (you know chipboard, no colour, jagged angles and shadows) somehow heightened the drama, but I’m afraid I didn’t engage with it emotionally. Still, it sounded gorgeous.

DANCE

Sutra is an extraordinary multi-cultural collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbe Cherkaoui, sculptor Anthony Gormley, musician Szymon Brozoska and the Shaolin Monks from China! Its contemporary dance meets martial arts, though less athletic than I was expecting. The use of 21 coffin-like boxes is brilliant and I liked the score, played live by a 5-piece ensemble including the composer. In the end though, I’m not sure it’s the classic the critics have hailed it, though I was glad to have caught it. We smiled at the incongruity of a large group of the monks getting on the bus back to the tube after the show!

FILM

I can’t put my finger on why I’m indifferent about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The 3D as quite good, but nothing like Avatar at the IMAX, and there are some lovely characterisations in both acting (Helena Bonham-Carter in particular) and voice (Alan Rickman stands out). It just wasn’t magical and other-worldly enough!

I loved Crazy Heart, a film about a burned out alcoholic Country star for which Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar. For an American film on a subject like this, it was surprisingly unsentimental and all the better for it. T Bone Burnett’s music was excellent.

I’m not keen on war films – relentlessly depressing – but I felt I should catch The Hurt Locker given all those awards, and was very glad I did. It’s an extremely well-made film which manages to drive home the point that these wars are pointless and impossible to win than any news or documentary I’ve seen. Still relentlessly depressing though!

ART

Though I’m glad I went to see it, the Paul Nash retrospective at Dulwich Gallery doesn’t really satisfy. There are eight great pictures amongst a selection of work which seems to me to show a restless man who kept changing, not in an inventive way, but in an ongoing search for his own style.

You think you’ve never heard of Paul Sandby until you set eyes on the iconic 18th Century watercolours, sketches and maps at his exhibition in the Royal Academy and realise you’ve seen many as prints. It’s a very comprehensive collection and you get a real feel for how a man like this made his living more than 200 years ago. I was particularly taken with a picture of Cardiff with the original west gate and wall; I never knew Cardiff had a wall and it’s 10 miles from where I spent the first 18 years of my life!

Irving Penn’s Portraits is one of two fine exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. The originality of his B&W images rests on a complete lack of distracting décor and the fact that he often places his subjects into restricted spaces or limits the portrait to less than the whole of his subject. I liked them a lot more than I thought I’d like Vogue photos! In contrast, the second exhibition of Indian Portraits spans 300 years from the mid-16th century to the mid-18th century and it’s rich with colour and detail and includes fascinating scenes of life.

There’s a really quirky installation at the Barbican’s Curve gallery from eccentric Frenchman Celeste Boursier-Mougenot . After walking through a dark space on decking with projections of guitarists playing but a soundtrack of birdsong, you get to a bright space with islands of sand containing guitars and cymbals being ‘played’ by zebra finches landing on them as they fly around the space. Just when you thought you’d seen it all…..

Until now, the work I’ve seen by Chris Ofili has left with a ‘so what’ feeling. I felt the same at the beginning of his retrospective at Tate Britain – his obsession with elephant dung, afro hairstyles and black women all seem rather childish, though I did like the colours and the titles ( including ‘7 bitches tossing their pussies before the divine dung’, ‘7 brides for 7 bros’ and ‘Albinos and bros with fros’!) made me smile. An extraordinary amount of money has been spent on a housing for his 13-painting series The Upper Room which I’m not sure it deserves. There’s a fun room of rather different series pictures, some a clear homage to Japanese woodcuts, a less successful room of obscure dark blue paintings and a final room of very different new work. In the end, it rather grew on me and walking back through it a couple of times, I stopped thinking and just enjoyed the colourfulness and playfulness of it all.

Tate Modern’s poster for its Arshile Gorky exhibition totally misrepresents it and drags people in under false pretences; if I’d paid, I’d be demanding my money back! The lovely poster picture is one of a handful in one room out of eleven rooms; the rest is shit (and if you change the ‘i’ to ‘o’ in his first name that would seem appropriate!). Their other current exhibition is a bit more interesting (only a bit mind), covering the impact in the 1920’s of magazine / movement De Stijl led by Theo van Doesburg. Painting wise it’s a lot of Mondrianesque red, black, white, blue and yellow boxes; I found the impact on design and graphics more interesting.

Visiting the Ron Arad exhibition at the Barbican was less of a must and more of filler; I was in the building with time to kill! Maybe that’s why I was so bowled over by it. I knew him as a man who designed interesting chairs, which he does, but he’s so much more – a designer-artist-sculptor-architect. The architecture was astonishing and completely new to me, and there were other objects like bookcases, vases and lamps. I loved Lolita the chandelier – you could text a message to her and it appeared as a scroll on Lolita! The exhibition design was terrific (he designed it himself) adding much to the pleasure of the experience.

Finally (anyone still there?) the Horace Walpole / Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A was interesting, though rather dull in presentation. A fascinating man with a great eye for art, design and style who ‘collected’ much more than the gothic he is best known for.

Phew; time to go on holiday for a rest……

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