Imagine that you are told that the whole of London is about to be destroyed. The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, all of the treasures about to be swept away. You’ve got a magic wand and can save just one room. Which would you choose?
Oddly enough, I think I’d chose Gallery 46A at the V&A – the Cast Court – which contains not one original object, but crams into one room an entire art history of almost two millenniums of Europe in a mad, exotic menagerie. There are tombs, fonts, doors, panels, freestanding statues and crosses, portrait busts, monumental memorials. The originals were in bronze, in stone, in wood, but here they are in plaster – that fragile but infinitely malleable magic dough – carefully copied and coloured, preserving every crack and grain, every indentation left by weary buttocks over the ages; not quite real but not quite fake.
Even the defenders of The Mousetrap, which has been filling a London theatre for 52 years, admit that its artistic merits, if any, have long been eclipsed by its status as an institution. It will continue, perhaps even should its audience mutate into another species, but can Agatha Christie survive as a writer who still have something to say to the modern world?
Her fiercely protective estate had put a moratorium on theatre productions of her work, in an attempt to “freshen them up”, so when And Then There Were None, in a new adaptation by Kevin Elyot, opened at the Gielgud it was not just this production, but the whole theatrical future of Christie, that was at stake.
The play is still reasonably true to the original tale of a party of ten people who are, morally if not legally, murderers, summoned to an isolated island to meet their just desserts – well except of course that the old title, Ten Little Niggers has long been sentenced to death. Rogers, the butler, keeps a lower-class stiff upper lip as he continues to minister to 10 guests invited to the house party by the mysteriously absent hosts, within minutes of learning of the death of his wife, and the stage is filled with crusty military types, proper spinster ladies and all of the other inhabitants of an ideal English village circa 1920.
Trafalgar Square, now happily cleared of traffic, has been revived as the real centre of London, a gathering place and a photo studio for tourists still happy to see the pigeons that the mayor has tried so hard to drive off. Standing tall at its height is the National Gallery, looking down towards the sentinel Nelson. Were this the Continent, its inevitable church would be, if not in this spot, then certainly nicely aligned with it. But this is London, with its ancient liberties and rights, so St Martin-in-the-Field, with its grand classical frontage, is tucked off to the side, at an odd angle, fine, but less than finely displayed.
As A.R. Hope Moncrieff explained in 1910: “At the date of Nelson’s crowning victory, a narrow, dirty lane of mean houses led by the Church of St Martin’s, that once could be rightly described as ‘in the fields’. ‘Hedge Lane’ too, ran north beyond the site of the National Gallery, not begun until 1832; and about this time the square came to be cleared from unsightly buildings known as the King’s Mews.”
But St Martin still manages to cut an imposing figure, one that will be familiar to many American and Irish visitors, for its Italian-trained Scottish architect, James Gibb, with his influential The Book of Architecture, set the pattern for a whole generation of ecclestiastical structures.
Every Australian grows up knowing the story of Simpson and his donkey. He was a First World War stretcher-bearer who, landed in Gallipoli, in 24 days was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of troops, before being mortally wounded himself. The donkey he was using on this day survived, and carried the wounded man on its back to safety.
It’s final fate, however, is unknown. I thought of it standing beside the Animals in War Memorial. It has two bronze mules – carrying a dismantled cannon and heavy boxes of ammunition, trudging through a narrow gap in the Portland stone wall on which are recorded some of the many beasts – from elephants to carrier pigeons – that humans have chosen to use, and abuse, in their attempts to kill other members of their own species.
London has always been a city of incomers. In medieval and early modern times, “foreigners” were people who came from a different county, and Londoners mainly were foreigners. With its birth rate less than its death rate, the city needed, and still needs, new blood coming in all of the time to keep it going, let alone growing.
I’m one such incomer, but count my blessings in that I came into the city with professional skills, a bit of capital, and a few friends to start a support network. Many others start with far less.
This week’s Time Out continues the story of a 23-year-old Pole who arrived in London from a small, poor village, not speaking English. Wiola Andrzejewska started working in a factory without proper employment conditions, was sacked without notice, but gradually developed a network of cleaning and babysitting jobs. Going back to her home town – flying for the first time (having arrived by bus!), wearing London fashions and comparing her achievements to those of her peers who stayed at home, she realises that she has come a long way.
For others, however, London is not a place of upward mobility. That’s the case with Najwa, the central character in Leila Aboulela’s novel Minaret. She arrives as an asylum-seeker, but one who, at first glance, has all of the resources necessary to make a success of her life in the city. Her family has money – rather a lot of money – which is what got them into trouble in their native Sudan in the first place, with her father held and then executed for corruption after a coup. She has at least part of a university education, excellent English from a private school education in Khartoum, and a network of helpful relatives – everything, it seems to succeed.
Eugenia is a frustrated woman. Even atom of her body aches to be free of her aged husband, to throw herself, with his money, into the gay life of youth that is hers by right of her birthdate. He, however, is destined to die soon, on a set date, the date that he turns four-score years of age, for that is the decree of an absolute monarch, Duke Evander of Epire. Women get only three score, and those of no further use can be bumped off even earlier, should their relatives so request.
That’s the scenario that guides A New Way to Please You, written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley in about 1618. Then, a scholarly essay in the programme indicates, there were all sorts of issues around conflict over the Common Law; indeed its original subtitle was The Old Law. Now, while that’s all history, the central clash of the play – between young and old – is still fresh, and ensures that this modern dress production seldom seems anachronistic.