In London for the first time in 18 months, I was as excited as a child on a birthday outing. We were desperate for a dose of up-close culture after months of Zoom, so we crammed in three exhibitions, two plays and a couple of first-class meals that I didn’t have to cook. Glorious. It helped that we had two of the few blue-sky days of this otherwise wretched summer and that I’d deliberately fallen off the wagon. My husband John says that I’m much nicer when I’m drinking. Apparently, when giving my kidneys a holiday, I’m altogether less joyful.
We stayed at the Chelsea Arts Club in Old Church Street. It took ten years to persuade the club that cooking and writing are arts so it should accept me as a member — it prefers painters and sculptors. I love the place. First of all it has minimal rules, no dress code and the members are suitably eccentric, louche and interesting. It has a beautiful, slightly overgrown garden in the middle of Chelsea, the food is excellent, the booze is cheap and the walls are full of changing paintings. On day one we lunched with friends in the garden, then went to the Crafts Council to see the first exhibition since it closed for refurbishment. I don’t see where craft stops and art starts, do you? Peter Collingwood’s geometric see-through woven hangings, Grayson Perry’s ceramics, Archie Brennan’s tapestries, Japanese origami — they’re all art, surely?
Early evening saw us at J. Sheekey, swilling champagne and ignoring the never-eat-oysters-in-a-month-without-an-R-in-it rule. Mid-mouthful I got a migraine: the first symptom, well-known to any migraine sufferer, is not being able to see properly. Half the print on the menu was suddenly invisible and then the dreaded flickering lights began. Normally that’s the cue for a couple of paracetamol, a darkened room and a good sleep. But I was in the middle of the first major treat in a year and a half, so I decided to ignore it. I now believe the best cure for a migraine is a glass of champagne and a plate of oysters. Truly, it worked. We walked up the road to Wyndham’s Theatre for Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt. I hadn’t told John the play was about the Holocaust. He says he doesn’t pay to be made unhappy, but thought it wonderful. Which it was.
Next day we had the full English at the club (so good that I broke the only club rule and fished out my phone to Instagram my fry-up), then set off for Paula Rego at Tate Britain. Great retrospective, but enormous. Her giant middle-years pictures, painted when she was a little mad and obsessed with Jung, are, for me, crammed too full of too many images and too much meaning, and are quite beyond me. Even with the Tate’s long explanations for every picture, I’d absolutely no idea what was going on. But her late works, with their sturdy characters with strong faces, painted in vibrant colours, are unforgettable and unmissable.
I hadn’t been to the V&A for years, and it was like visiting an old friend and finding her rejuvenated by love or something. Forgive me if you know all this — Londoners presumably do — but the courtyard is magical. Children splash in the enormous central paddling pool as people picnic on the grass. We sat at a table in the shade and had beer and an excellent salad out of a box. There was no litter anywhere. Either the staff are super-vigilant or the V&A attracts a very fastidious customer. Fed and watered, we walked through the galleries (trying not to be distracted, not easy as no one displays artefacts as cleanly, clearly and well-lit as the V&A) to see Epic Iran, a gallop through the centuries from the dawn of civilisation to now. A curate’s egg: lovely early stuff, rather boring modern collection.
Back to the club for a siesta (oldies like us need little foot-ups if we are to survive a heady dose of culture), after which we set off for the Bridge Theatre, which is another delight that has passed me by in my rustication in the country. The modern in-the-round theatre on the South Bank is wonderfully comfortable and in the interval you can sit on the wall overlooking the Thames, drink in hand. We saw Bach & Sons, with Simon Russell-Beale bloody brilliant as the cantankerous genius.
I’d forgotten how handsome London is and how easily you can get around, especially if you swallow hard and treat yourself to taxis rather than suffer the sweltering Tube. The only downside is the nagging thought: have we, double-vaxxed and previously cautious, now got Covid?