Winter in London

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Even the most weary traveller would find it hard to resist London at this time of year. Other cities like Berlin are just cold and grey but London has a special atmosphere that brings out the best in it. The Christmas trees sparkle, exquisite decorations light up elegant streets, you pause in front of Fortnum’s famous windows to admire their fantastic displays before going into to stock up essentials like tea, biscuits and marmalade. Even Cartier’s is all wrapped up in a big red bow. And there is always something remarkable to discover. Pausing to admire a beautiful tiara in the window of Bentley and Skinner on Piccadilly, I was invited in to see a small exhibition of exquisite Fabergé jewels and trinkets in the basement before making my way to the Duchamp/Dali exhibition at the Royal Academy. No visit to Piccadilly would be complete either without a visit to Hatchards which is surely the bibliophile’s ultimate dream. After breakfasting on almond croissant, Greek yoghurt with berries and strong coffee, I took the train to Blackfriar’s the next morning for the Red Star Over Russia exhibition at Tate Modern where I spent the rest of the day drifting between the galleries and joining in the fun in the Turbine Hall which is rather like a giant playground. The day ended with a trip to the BFI to watch one of my favourite films of all time, Double Indemnity. In the warmth and comfort of those plush red seats next to fellow cinephiles, the film came alive like never before and not a sound was uttered until after the final credits had rolled. On my final day, I just see the remarkable exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and return to the permanent collection of the National Gallery to admire some of my favourite paintings before catching the bus over to the BFI again to watch Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful The Bad and the Beautiful. The weather had turned very cold and there was a chill in the air as I walked over Waterloo Bridge in the red lights of rush hour to get the bus back to St. Pancras, taking in the lights and beautiful buildings one last time. I can’t wait for Christmas.

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London calling

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Whatever the season and however often I go to London, I always seem to end up in the same part – that stretch between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus. It’s a habit I’ve had for at least 15 years. Sometimes I feel bad about neglecting other interesting sights and areas but then again, you have so many wonderful places there. There’s the park itself with a few brave daffodils at this time of year standing proud and further on, the trees in blossom along many of the winding paths. The beautiful Burlington Arcade where you can admire the pink pyramids of Ladurée macarons and agonish over which mouth-watering flavours to choose. And when you’ve finally made your selection, there is Frédéric Malle to spritz or repurchase new and old favourites like Portrait of a Lady or Chanel to discover more of Les Exclusifs perfumes. Or if you’re broke, it’s a chance to just savour some old world elegance.

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As usual, I headed for the Royal Academy, sipping coffee and enjoying a huge slice of moelleux au chocolat, bought across the street from Paul’s bakery, in its magnificent courtyard underneath the watchful gaze of Sir Joshua Reynolds. On the hottest day of the year, it suddenly felt like summer with everyone in T-shirts, soaking up the sun. Inside, they had rolled out the red carpet in honour of the Russian Revolution exhibition. Room after room was filled with monumental, extraordinarily beautiful and amazing displays, finishing with the room of memory which featured just a few of the people arrested or shot in the age of terror. Looking at their faces, some famous, others just ordinary citizens, I thought of all the lives destroyed, talents lost and broken dreams. People no different from us today.

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IMG_3395 After seeing so much and fighting through the crowds in the gallery, I headed to the sanctuary of Fortnum and Mason across the street. Gigantic displays of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, stacks of teas from all over the world, silver and glass teapots are just a few things that transfix you when you walk in. That and the beautiful staircase leading to the wine section downstairs. I was content that day to order a pot of Afternoon Blend and watch the world go by in the tearoom.

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But what is tea without books? Just a couple of shops down, you enter the world of Hatchard’s, my favourite bookshop ever. Holly Golightly famously had Tiffany’s but this is my ultimate place for “the mean reds”. It’s a sanctuary where nothing bad can happen to you and as an anxiety sufferer, the ultimate refuge. I took my time choosing, lingering by a whole section devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, another to Churchill. On the first floor, I curled up on a comfortable green sofa with a pile of books before deciding upon Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Put Out More Flags’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Deep Water’ by Patricia Highsmith and ‘The Goodbye Look’ by Ross Macdonald. At the till downstairs, a man with many Fortnum’s bags was trying to order an obscure novel from the American assistant while alongside, another customer with a suitcase was enquiring about a rare children’s book. “Take him up to the second floor”, his colleague insisted. “One person waiting isn’t a queue”, before asking if I agreed with his definition. Who was I to argue?

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But even in a favourite area, there are new things to tempt you away. My friend Jan had told me about Maison Bertaux, an old French patisserie in Soho. I had passed close by this place many times before but had no idea of its existence until he told me about the amazing croissants and old-fashioned atmosphere. On my last morning, a cool, grey day, we were there for breakfast first thing, seated at one of the corner tables with its blue checked cloths. The pastries and coffee were the best I’ve ever had in London but hunger and the dark interior that early meant I didn’t manage to take decent photos. I can’t wait to return there next time to sample some of the wonderful cakes, getting off just a few stops earlier than usual on the Piccadilly Line, even if it means going to Hatchard’s a little later.

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Bloomsbury in bloom by our hotel

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Sir John Betjeman, poet and saviour of St. Pancras.

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Just time for a glass of champagne at the long bar before boarding the train.

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Summer film 8: Burnt by the sun (1994)

In Nikita Mikhalkov’s masterpiece, summer has never seemed more beautiful or more poignant. Set in 1936, it’s the story of Colonel Kotov (played brilliantly by Mikhalkov himself), a popular hero of the Russian Revolution and the summer he spends in a village with his young and beautiful wife, Marusia (Ingeborga Dapkounaite) six-year old daughter (Nadezhda Mikhalkova – the director’s real-life daughter) and other family and friends. The peaceful atmosphere is disturbed by the sudden arrival of Mitya (Oleg Menchikov), Marusia’s long lost love.  It seems he is trying to win Marusia back but Kotov suspects darker motives at work.

The tension in this film builds slowly – you sense the jealousy when Mitya arrives and then it gradually becomes a battle for survival between the two men. As a backdrop to this, you have a last glimpse of the old Russia disappearing. We learn that Marusia comes from an aristocratic family and that her relatives have only escaped because of her marriage to a Red Army hero. Comparisons with Chekhov are inevitable but there is something of the atmosphere of his plays in the drawing room scenes and eccentric behaviour of some of the characters. This is the Russia of forests, fields of corn and shimmering water and there is something unbearably heartbreaking knowing that this world will be lost forever with the Stalinist purges which are beginning and the Second World War. How can such cruelty exist when everything is so beautiful?

For me, this is one of the most magnificent and haunting films I’ve ever seen. It captures the poetry and tragedy of the Russian soul. The balloon scene with Stalin’s face towards the end is pure genius.