Monthly Archive: March 2015

Manchester and the Welland Archives

A stern selfie near the Town Hall

A stern selfie near the Town Hall

It’s daily entries at the moment! It won’t last long, but for now a lot of things seem to be happening that I want to write about here on this public blog. Today, I’ve been in Manchester. I’m writing this on the rather nice Virgin train back to London Euston where you can plug in laptops at the tables and there’s a rather brilliant driver who came on the intercom pronouncing ‘vestibule’ very much like ‘vegetable’, so we now know what we can and cannot put in the vegetable areas. Anyway, I was urged in my PhD viva to go to see the Dennis and Joan Welland Papers, an archive kept in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Coming all the way up here doesn’t come cheap – short of four-hour coach trips that I didn’t fancy at all – but it has been a pleasant visit so I don’t mind. I still need lots of distractions to keep my mind off certain personal issues so this sort of change of pace is welcome, even if it’s expensive!
The cover of an original 1920 edition of Owen's poems

The cover of an original 1920 edition of Owen's poems

I’ve been in Manchester before – quite a while ago, as a sixth-former. Manchester was on my UCAS form, you see, so I came up to do the entrance interview. I had friends living in Manchester at the time – or friends of friends, I’d have to look it up – which meant after my interview I could go and party. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I remember the trams, I remember that the bars on Canal Street were rather sterile and not at all as interesting as they seemed on Queer as Folk, and that I got very very drunk and did some mildly embarrassing things we won’t go into now. But yes, this was the first time since then. And my impressions were good. From what I’ve seen of it today, Manchester is really not very different from London, only with trams in the centre, more wide open streets and a much more concentrated centre, which is good for someone like me who likes to walk. It also seems to have a lot more men content to stand about in the streets with a can of cheap beer in their hand in the early afternoon, looking dazed and unwashed. Seriously, it seemed to be a thing. Maybe it’s a new trend and I’m just not cool enough to know about it. There were also a lot of very loud football fans today too, but ironically the ones kicking up a big fuss and singing their obnoxious songs were ones who, like me, had come up from London. Arsenal are playing Manchester United away, you see, so I was quite glad kickoff was as late as 19:45 so that I wouldn’t have to deal with angry hooligans. When I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, first of all I decided to be a bit touristy, so went to look at Manchester’s Chinatown. It appears to largely be a car park, and rather too many all-you-can-eat buffet places, but there are big ornate gates, which is nice. I decided today was a day of selfies.
Nice big gate

Nice big gate

Put ‘John Rylands’ into Google Maps and was a bit confused that it was pointing me south, as when I had looked last night, the library seemed to be north of the station. Trusting in the power of the search engine, I followed it, thinking that if I was going south I could pop to the Curry Mile for dinner, and see if it deserved its reputation. Soon after, I found myself briefly at the end of Canal Street again – which at 1:30pm was a ghost town.
I possibly could have looked slightly more impressed

I possibly could have looked slightly more impressed

Around the corner I could see the impressive tower of the Palace Hotel, so took another selfie. I don’t look so great today, but oh well! I’m being a tourist oop north! Tomorrow I think I’ll bleach my hair again, as it looks dull.
I look positively irate

I look positively irate

Down Oxford Road I went until once again I was on the university campus. I began to suspect something was wrong, however, when I approached the modern, bland-looking library and didn’t see ‘John Rylands’ anywhere. The kindly lady at the reception informed me that while that building had at one point been called the John Rylands University Library, it wasn’t any more, and the John Rylands Library I was looking for was back in the centre!
Not only windswept, but in the wrong place

Not only windswept, but in the wrong place

So back I went, now feeling I probably shouldn’t have been such a tourist. On the other hand, around the town hall and Albert Square, the buildings got rather more grandiose again. Not far away, I finally found the rather pleasant gothic edifice with awkwardly-appended glass giftshop and entranceway that is the John Rylands library. The reading rooms were up on the fourth floor, and though time was tight by then – in the end I had to stay until the last minute and didn’t even finish getting through everything I’d reserved. There were still three slim folders (containing no more than 3-10 letters or notes) that I never got to see. Oh well!
Finally a different facial expression! I've found the place!

Finally a different facial expression! I've found the place!

  It was quite an odd, yet fairly moving, experience to go through a dead man’s personal effects – especially one who I’ve been reading for the past few years. Moving in a different way from going through Owen’s library, but more haunting in a way because Welland – a key Owen scholar – is not a well-known figure and his output is academic rather than artistic. Somehow it feels like one is another step removed from a noble purpose, reading an academic’s letters as opposed to those of the artist they have made their subject.
Welland's original doctoral thesis, with photograph

Welland's original doctoral thesis, with photograph

The most important part of the collection is the preliminary work done for The Posthumous Life of Wilfred Owen, which Welland never completed before his death. Though related to Owen, as the book would have covered the course of Owen scholarship from 1919 to the late nineties, and as Welland was a key figure in that scholarship, it would have been in many ways his memoirs. He never got too far with it, but what remains is a fascinating collection of anecdotes – and as when he began his thesis, Welland was one of only a handful of scholars working on Owen and many people who had known him well were still alive, he was able to do a wealth of research by meeting and/or corresponding with the likes of Sassoon, Harold Owen and Leslie Gunston.
The late Dominic Hibberd  really inspired me to pursue Owen as a subject

The late Dominic Hibberd really inspired me to pursue Owen as a subject

There was a certain thrill to holding letters written by Cecil Day Lewis, Philip Larkin and Siegfried Sassoon. Harold Owen’s writing is almost comically awful, as one would expect of the pantomime villain he often becomes in the mythical narratives of discourse about his brother. Yet he has his moments of affecting sweetness, just as in Journey from Obscurity. Blunden perhaps comes over as an unsung hero: he was editor of the TLS at the time Harold Owen wrote a letter to it effectively stating he was going to block Welland’s work and lying about him never having approached the family before publicly announcing his research intentions. It turns out that he had effectively stopped Harold from going into full-blown crazy mode and edited his letter to tone it down considerably before publication (with Harold’s consent). So much drama about this subject in the 1940s!
Harold Owen's writing (top) is terrible

Harold Owen's writing (top) is terrible

Having more detail about Sassoon’s interactions with Welland was also poignant. Sassoon as he grows old often comes over as petty and spiteful, but there is so much more sadness in how he spoke to Welland about Owen than is better-remembered for his viciousness towards Spender on the same subject (‘He was an embarrassment – he spoke with a grammar school accent’). It was slightly surprising to me – though telling – that in his letter to Sassoon’s son he implied that he intended to stress how much the eventual stature of Wilfred Owen owed to Sassoon. At the same time, it’s very amusing to read Sassoon’s bitchy letters to Welland about how he has agreed to let Harold Owen show him Journey of Obscurity when it is complete, and how he is ‘dreading having his 250,000 words dumped on me.’
Cheeky Sassoon

Cheeky Sassoon

A large part of my third chapter was original research about the posthumous reputation of Wilfred Owen, so this is absolutely stuff I should have read before submitting. There’s really no arguing that. I’m glad I have, now – but I’m definitely going to leave it to rest for quite a while before I resume work. Tomorrow, research into historians I omitted. And then a nice long break to write fiction. After the library closed, I went back to Manchester Piccadilly to make sure I knew where it was, but the restaurants there were all chains I could go to in London or pubs full of rowdy Arsenal fans, so I set off in search of something more local. Wandered past the Manchester branches of Forbidden Planet and Cyberdog and then found a nice pub with hipster clientele that specialised in pies. Feeling that was a pretty British thing to eat, and seeing several people with laptops feeling it wasn’t a bad place to sit in alone, I ordered steak pie with mash and some Guinness. It wasn’t bad – the pastry was a bit dry and what seemed to be a dog bowl full of mash was about double how much I needed or could finish – and it was better than just going into a the TGI Friday’s for the same old same old.
Owt wrong with a bit of pie an' mash

Owt wrong with a bit of pie an' mash

So endeth my Manchester adventure. And I quite enjoyed it, really. Though next time, it would of course be better to have someone to show me around!

Gallery visit – Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market at the National Gallery

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Today I went to the new Impressionism gallery in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Back in November I enjoyed the Rembrandt exhibition there more than I expected to, but I’ve always rather liked Rembrandt and have never been keen on Impressionism, so was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this more than anticipated as well. Quite a lot more, really – because it’s allowed me to really refine what I do and don’t like in impressionism. In fact, what I really am not very keen on is the painting of Monet. I actually really greatly admire Renoir’s work, and the greater part of Manet’s and Degas’ too – when they are not being too slapdash. Pissarro and Sisley, also well-represented here, are hit and miss, but at their best they are admirable. The problem I have with Monet is that I don’t feel his paintings stand alone. To appreciate the artistic statement he is making, one has to have an overview of his artistic development, and I think that is a weakness. With every Renoir painting I’ve seen and all but a few of those from Degas, no matter how experimental they are with their techniques, colour choices or compositions, there is still evidence of the master technician, the clever painter with an eye for light and texture, whose bold choices are justified by the picture as a whole. Manet in particular often balances the loose impressionist elements with touches of realism in just the right way to be clever and experimental while also new and challenging, which seems to me the manifestation of his love for Velasquez. But with Monet, it is clear that he pushes boundaries and made striking statements, but I can’t say that I enjoy the results. I don’t find them pleasing to look at, or painterly, or clever. He was clearly technically gifted and likely rigorously trained, but one has to see his early painting to know that – rather like Picasso. There isn’t that admirable cleverness or evidence of solid technique in his later works, and while I see that there’s something admirable in that academically – he truly embraced the statement Impressionism was making without any need to anchor himself in the old-fashioned – the result doesn’t please me or impress me.
Looking confused outside the gallery

Looking confused outside the gallery

The exhibition was based around the life of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who championed the Impressionists when they were being rejected by the Salon and eventually ended up being vindicated as the ‘New Painting’ became highly fashionable. American money, of course, helped – as did leaving France when war was declare with Prussia and setting up a gallery in New Bond Street, London. Though close to bankruptcy on occasion, he is now considered a pioneer and set up many established practices such as running solo exhibitions for artists during their lifetimes and acting as a kind of patron to painters in need – including commissioning painted doors in his apartments and several portraits of his family members. I can’t say I’m touched on any emotional level by the impressionism I’ve seen, as I can be by the works of the Old Masters, the surrealists, the pre-Raphaelites or even some of the realists. Degas is probably the one most likely to paint something to move me, though Renoir paints things I find lovely to look at. After the gallery, to Chinatown for dim sum – though the rice and noodles we ordered were a bit excessive so a few dumplings had to be taken home as dabao!
A feast of dim sum!

A feast of dim sum!

Went to meet the band afterwards, and got all the letters ready to submit to labels as well as getting the audio ready to make a trailer. Once the four of us got together – for the first time in forever – we did some basic photos for publicity shots, though we’re going to arrange more with a proper photographer soon. All that remains is the artwork, the teaser and the website – then we’ll begin the submissions process for our distribution deal! Tomorrow, off to Manchester to do some more archival research. Then I’ll probably spend Tuesday in the library with the historical books I was recommended – and then go back to fiction-writing for a good long while.

Fine Dining blog post: Seven Park Place

Eagerly awaiting food in the lounge

Eagerly awaiting food in the lounge

This may be quite bad timing for a foodie blog post. I’ve been lucky enough to eat in almost all London’s top restaurants thanks to my parents’ love of fine dining, but this is the first time I’m writing a full blog post. But this trip to Seven Park Place is likely to be the last meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant I have in many months, because I’m moving to Japan soon and I’m pretty doubtful I’ll have the money to spend on extravagant meals – or anyone to go with if I do! So let me enjoy my last little moment of getting to sample some of the best cooking the capital can offer. Yes, I am only able to eat at this sort of restaurant thanks to dearest Mummy and Daddy’s affluence – but I’m certainly not going to refuse because this is an unearned treat. Most of the best meals I’ve ever had have been far beyond my means. We headed to Green Park the long way, as the useful part of the Jubilee Line was closed for the usual engineering works. The plus side of this was that we took the DLR to Tower Gateway and enjoyed some lovely views as the sun set.
Pretty, no?

Pretty, no?

Arrived just in time for our booking at St. James’ Hotel, an eccentric 5-star hotel tucked away in a cul-de-sac not far from the Ritz. To start with, we had some drinks in the lounge, where my brother was waiting, and his wife soon arrived to complete our party. The decoration there was fun – old-fashioned and ostentatious without being stuffy.
The exterior of St. James' Hotel

The exterior of St. James' Hotel

The restaurant itself was along similar lines, and odd in that it is relatively tiny. The restaurant covers only 26, even smaller than Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, though it still felt more spacious and airy than La Gavroche. That  said, one party of eight was crammed onto a table elbow-to-elbow – though they didn’t seem to mind. The staff were friendly and attentive, though one forgot all about a question Mum asked her and later they brought us someone else’s coats from the cloakroom. The menu was explained well, and my brother ordered possibly the nicest wine I remember having in any of these restaurants from the sommelier. We started with a little amuse bouche – a pretty little salmon dish with beetroot. Then came my starter, which was delicious: seared foie gras with baby vegetables.
Seared foie gras

Seared foie gras

Foie gras is of course a controversial foodstuff, made by force-feeding geese. Whether they seem quite happy about this on a free-range farm or are cruelly pumped full of grain in a battery farm, the fact remains that they are being force-fed, and that rubs many people the wrong way. And yes, some of the same people turn a blind eye to worse things happening to battery-farmed chickens, but that does not change the unpleasant thought of how a bird’s liver is fattened. But I eat meat in awareness that animals suffer for it; there is no escaping that slaughter is unpleasant, and yet I am not vegan. I don’t find foie gras notably more morally repugnant than how steaks or lamb chops are made. I have chosen to go on eating meat, so fundamentally I must admit to not considering animals’ suffering equivalent to human suffering. I don’t think they experience the world in the same way. That may alienate some people, but I can’t just pretend never to have thought about it or be a hypocrite about it. And one of the finest flavours I have ever tasted has been the foie gras at Gordon Ramsay at RHR. This starter came close to that. That got a little heavy for a cheerful food blog...but I know that at some point I’m going to have to justify eating what I do and it might as well be now! Anyway, the meal continued with lovely pink saddle of lamb, cooked to perfection and perfectly balanced with root vegetables and a slightly sweet jus. This is where the wine came into its own!
Saddle of lamb

Saddle of lamb

Dessert was a chocolate mouse with salted caramel ice cream and fruit – stronger flavours than I expected and matched with a somewhat subtle dessert wine. Well, subtle as dessert wines go, which is to say that it didn’t taste like an alcopop. Like most of the best desserts, even though individual elements were strong, it was by far the best when every element was eaten together and the different flavours mingled on the palate.
Chocolate mousse

Chocolate mousse

After that they brought us another small amuse bouche that was fairly obviously a pre-dessert that they’d forgotten to give us beforehand (whoops) and was tasty but fairly indifferent after the strong dessert, and then some sweet little petits fours. I happily snapped up the lemon macaron!
Petits Fours

Petits Fours

Seven Park Place isn’t one of London’s most well-known restaurants, but this was a very fine meal. Chef William Drabble deserves the acclaim. Like Fera at Claridge’s, no dish was the best of its kind I had ever eaten, but absolutely every flavour was near the top of is class and there was a consistent excellence dish after dish. The portion sizes were also just right for a satisfying but not uncomfortable meal. Most of the talk about Seven Park Place will revolve around its distinctive setting. It’s not a striking, impressive location like Galvin La Chapelle, nor does it have the converted townhouse atmosphere of Texture – if it reminded me of any other similar restaurant, it was probably rather if Viajante had been downsized by half rather than closing. But love or hate the tiny, rather eccentric space – and I came down on the side of love – the food really needs to speak for itself, and for its strength of flavours, earthiness and the excellence of the ingredients, I was very impressed by Seven Park Place.
Approved!

Approved!