The Blog

Life in the Arts Lane - Week 80 - Progress and Protest

Watching England play football is an extraordinarily masochistic exercise. It is like waiting to be punched - the question is not whether or not you will be punched, the only question is when. As Harry and I roam over the site, he banters with his crew in Dutch, swapping manly hugs, jokes and the occasional kiss.

As the Masterpiece tents rise from the glistening flat floors laid out across the grounds at the Royal Hospital, the sun is shining. My visits to the site to observe the progress and watch the installation of the Philip King exhibition in Ranelagh Gardens are bathed in sunshine and the occasional, but thankfully brief, shower. After our Masterpiece board meeting, I find myself standing by one of the metal grille fences wearing my high viz jacket with the owner of Stabilo and the fair's contractor and architect, Harry van der Hoorn. We are trying to get into the site and whilst we wait for passes, Harry, the Ghanaian security guard and I discuss the forthcoming World Cup. The security guard was a trifle cold and tough at first but, engaging in football chat, he warmed and by the time we parted all agreed that none of our favoured countries stood a chance and that this was definitely the best position to be in.

Watching England play football is an extraordinarily masochistic exercise. It is like waiting to be punched - the question is not whether or not you will be punched, the only question is when. As Harry and I roam over the site, he banters with his crew in Dutch, swapping manly hugs, jokes and the occasional kiss. He bounces up and down on the floor and shakes the rising walls, each gesture eagerly followed by his foreman who takes notes and looks calm but concerned. No one will notice a steady floor or a rigid wall, they will only notice when the former is wobbly and the latter flimsy. Failure is obvious; success is invisible.

I cycle over to see the trucks coming in with the bold painted metal geometric and figurative shapes that are distinctive of Philip King's work. The works exude the power and gutsiness of their production - we seem to be in sight of a shipyard or equivalent. The machines that move the work echo those that held it when Philip was cutting and welding it. The result is that the visceral, incredibly physica, nature of his work is beautifully brought out during installation. Once placed, the lyrical shapes and bold colours happily combine with the grass and the perky, optimistic daisies that have burgeoned during the few days between the end of the flower show and now.

Cycling up west to the Masterpiece offices, I am delighted to find myself in heavy traffic. On a bicycle it is a pleasure to sail through clogged roads whilst drivers curse their delay. The police have closed off the entrance to Piccadilly from Hyde Park corner to cars. They look pained and frustrated to see the flow of bicycles passing their smart cones labelled 'Police'. Weaving through I find the road jammed with taxis. There is a festive air. They have all stopped, opened their doors and are mingling, chatting and either eating or drinking. I hear helicopters buzzing above me. I could not think why these drivers were so relaxed. The London cabbie with a passenger on board is always thrilled to sit endlessly in traffic, but an empty cab is an impatient cab, and all these are empty. As I progress towards Dover Street, the scene continues and there is no sign of the cause at all. Finally reaching the offices I learn that this was not a delay but a protest. No wonder the cabbies all looked so cheerful. A website called Uber is the cause of their ire, their jobs are thought to be under threat from the web app which, as well as booking and tracking the cars, will work out the cost of a journey, acting as a meter, which only black cabs are entitled to use. For me the joy of a London cab is the unique fact that they have done 'The Knowledge' - a lengthy and arduous training, which leads to an encyclopaedic understanding of how to navigate London; and a winning advantage if participating in all fact-based game shows. Sadly the advent of GPS devices means that this skill is becoming superfluous. I cherish our London black cabs, and the city needs a good taxi service; but this is what is called progress - not an improvement, but something that cannot be halted.

In the evening I attended a dinner to celebrate the birthday of Philip King and a year of exhibitions. It was at the house of the art dealer Ivor Braka. A show has just opened at the Thomas Dane Gallery, to be followed by Masterpiece, and then the Tate at the end of the year. Ivor's home is teeming with wonderful, striking modern and contemporary work and furnished with Arts and Crafts. Everywhere the eye fell there was a treat and a delight. I ran into Henry Wyndham from Sotheby's. I have known Henry for more than 20 years and he persists in being unexpectedly tall. He was his usual charming self and we had a jolly discussion about collecting the work of Christopher Dresser. The debate was whether silver should be cleaned or not. We both concluded that clean was best and that defined us as being old school bourgeois. The cool thing to do was to let it tarnish and be seen alongside contemporary work where the ravages of time and discolouration are part of the acquisition of patina and thereby value. Food followed and whilst plates were piled high, the platters kept on being discreetly replenished. There was an understated sense of opulence and generosity and, when Nick Serota made a speech in praise of the genius of Philip, we all clapped enthusiastically, happy and replete.

Cycling up Piccadilly again the next day I passed a small protest involving Stuart the dog and Stuart the owner. Stuart the dog was wearing banners inscribed 'No Nuke's' (I struggle with punctuation myself but I think the apostrophe is wrong) and seemed very cheerful. He sniffed around and generally looked very content in the sunshine. I was delighted to meet this veteran of protest and his master allowed me to take a snapshot. Stuart the owner has been campaigning against all things nuclear for over 30 years and has managed to be photographed and recorded at many a political conference. Today he was protesting about the damage done by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. He would like to see an end to all nuclear power. His finest hour, by his own admission, was being beaten up by a political blogger in Brighton during the Labour party conference last year. It is all on YouTube, of course. Stuart the dog did a bit of biting in the fracas but otherwise his views are not known.

King Lear at the National Theatre. The area has recently changed markedly. Instead of the stark, uncompromising display of brutalist architecture, now it has the feel of a massive market. Food stall holders are at every turn and every aisle; food is everywhere. In days of yore the only option was a dried up sandwich or the National Film Theatre outdoor cafe under Waterloo Bridge. The experience would be accompanied by the crash and bang of youths skateboarding. Today the walk from the tube is a hurly burly of global gastronomic delights. As I made it to the doors of the Olivier theatre to see Simon Russell Beale as King Lear in the Sam Mendes production, I was almost exhausted by having run the gamut of all these hawkers of pies. The play is for me a flawless masterpiece, and even under the deadening influence of studying it at school, I found the pitiless misery of the play deeply affecting. It was a huge pleasure to hear again so many familiar lines, it made me quite overlook the fact that Papa Smurf seemed to playing Lear and noble Edgar was being portrayed as a charming but clueless provincial arts student. This very bare and symbolic play offers itself up to endless reinvention and unusual period dating but this interpretation seemed to me forced and uncomfortable. King Lear is in itself a challenging and difficult play and though I loved seeing it, I found this production particularly challenging and difficult.