While in London we saw my old friend John Shrapnel, appearing in a Caryl Churchill play about a father and son, A Number – wonderfully performed by John and his son Lex (Alexander Carey) – seen here on the programme, who was quite superb, as was his Dad. The jewel and climax of our trip came in Claire’s hometown of Clonmel, where her marvellous portraits were shown to great acclaim, and the amazement of some of the ‘victims’ – the subjects of the portraits – some of whom were even unaware that they were being painted, since Claire had solicited photographs of a hometown relative, and managed to paint the subject to the life. Upstairs at the gallery I gave my Tales of Old Hollywood talk, punctuated by an ancient film fan who interrupted constantly, to the audience’s mingled annoyance and amusement. He was a hoot and gave me plenty of fodder.
The Trinity photo belongs to the Dublin end of our travels, where Chiara revisited some sights of her native city, including this tender sculpture outside Trinity College.
Earlier, on our way back down south from the Highlands, we visited Hadrian’s Wall. Beautiful weather; very impressive; gorgeous countryside. We stayed the night in Carlisle, where we were treated to startling scenes and sounds of urban violence on a Tuesday night – the city center resounding with rollicking, drunken cries, and a hotel guest arriving at the front desk as we checked in, protesting that there was a bloke with a gun on the loose in the hotel. “Yes, yes, just a moment,” said the very calm young man handling our check-in, as if guns were business as usual, “I’m just dealing with these people, so if you’d kindly wait…”
Britain has become a desperate place for those without money. Soup kitchens abound in London; people are leaving London by the ten thousands per week, to seek life in the suburbs or beyond. Soon, it’s said, only the rich will inhabit London itself. In London, police sirens sound continuously – but clearly inadequately, since the Met have officially announced that they will investigate no more burglaries. They’re too busy investigating cases of child abuse, they proclaim. There was one attempt by the West Midlands Police to maintain vigilance and investigate burglaries – but only at houses with even-numbered addresses. No joke. Only even-numbered houses. Apparently it was an ‘experiment,’ which yielded interesting results: no change in the number of burglaries reported. (Are burglars not paying attention? Or are investigations so feeble that it makes no difference anyway? In my young day in Britain burglaries were always treated with weary compassion by the cops: don’t hold your breath, we’ll never get your stuff back. Honestly, we don’t have the manpower.) Same today, evidently, if not worse. As for the even-numbered experiment, no comic writer I can think of could have thought up this beyond-Pythonesque development; not even Spike Milligan; the only one who could have conceived of it perhaps is J.B.Morton, the genius who wrote for the Daily Express under the name of Beachcomber.
We encountered a number of animals on our trip. And fell in love with all, naturally – the kitten, the cat, the ball-obsessed dog, and an adorable horse encountered in a British field. We hoped to include the Loch Ness monster, and dutifully visited the loch. But alas…
We spent a wondrous weekend in the highlands, reaching the Blackisle (birthplace of my Uncle David and site of his earldom) before turning down towards the glens where Sam, Maeve and Sorley live. We tramped (a little, in my case, more so in Claire and Chiara’s case), sometimes heavily attended by midges, until a breeze came to drive them away. The beauty of it, and the glorious prospect of Sam’s – Dr. Sam’s – Shielings project, opening up Scotland’s farming history and the beauty of their native land, to natives and visitors alike, were a thrill. What a life they’ve made here (my Stuart and MacDonald heritage blending with Sam’s mother’s Fraser heritage!)!
By sheer good luck, when we dropped in on Durham Cathedral (this sounds a bit like ‘when we dropped in on the Palace) it was evensong. The full choir resounding in 1000-year-old stone was a sound so profoundly captivating that I could hardly persuade Chiara to leave. We needed to make it to Edinburgh that night. Only seven people were present for evensong; a few more arrived late. The choir sang, full-throated. Apparently they are obliged to stage a full evensong, by law (civil or ecclesiastical?). The law of the land, seemingly. If I lived in Durham, or anywhere near, I would never miss evensong in this setting. The empty pews bespoke the barrenness of the age more completely than anything one could imagine. No photography was allowed, but Chiara sneaked in a couple of good ones, the great pillars evoking their contemporaries in Ely.
We dutifully explored Edinburgh in mid-Festival, in and out of rain, picture galleries, and Festival theatres. I fell upon a painting that delighted me – ‘Landscape with Monks’! – cicrca 1706, attributed to the Riccis, uncle and nephew: uncle Sebastiano painted the monks and nephew Marco the landscape, it is thought, and St. Bruno is featured, with a halo; and a mystery: in a rather exalted eatery full of grand paintings, a Sargent of Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve read that Sargent painted RLS 3 times, but can only find two: the infamous and absurd painting of RLS and his wife in which Fanny is tucked away ‘like a ghost’ as Stevenson said, in a corner of the painting, and the wonderful portrait of RLS seated with his long legs crossed. Judge by my photos: the one we saw in the restaurant seems unmistakably a Sargent (or a masterly fake?): it’s the RLS and Fanny portrait – without Fanny. But it’s the very same RLS. I’ve scoured the internet without a glimpse of a solution. Claire suggests the Sargent we saw (clearly attributed to him) could be a study for the ‘RLS and wife’ painting.