I never tire of London

Had a couple of magical days in town, reminding me how much I miss it. Began with lunch – barbecued eel and a seaweed salad – at the Japanese Centre in Lower Regent Street. Intrigued by the sheer variety of people using the mini-supermarket, not only Japanese but all nationalities. But that’s what the city does, takes in people from everywhere with their skills and culture then turns them into Londoners. Nothing to offer, and you can expect to be rejected. Peter Ackroyd makes the same point in his brilliant London – The Biography: the city’s strength has always been its people. The only other that offers the same variety is New York, and even the Big Apple can be, well, a tad parochial. Think of how many different writers, and styles, have become the voice of London. NY offers two, really: Damon Runyon and Tom Wolfe. Perhaps James Baldwin and stretching a point, songwriters like the Gershwins or Sammy Cohen. But look at the sheer variety of London voices like Amis (a pet hate, but has to be acknowledged),  Zadie Smith, Timothy Mo, JG Ballard, M John Harrison (whose wonderful Viriconium has to be based on London) and countless others, all with something fresh and exciting (okay, Amis for Money) to say about London town. And those are only a few.

I was staying with my nephew who lives above Camden Town. I love the way the near anarchic and often downright weird seamlessly morph into the elegant and controlled. One moment the bustle of Camden Market, the next the sheer – expensive – graciousness of Camden Square. No, that isn’t where the nephew lives. But it’s close. However, the back garden next to his well-tended one is as chaotic as anything you’ll find a few streets away. “The family just gave up,” his other neighbour said. “Got too old and don’t want help.” But I think a bit of chaos next door highlights how green your own fingers are. There again, I don’t have to live there.

The next day a bus down to Selfridges and what was going to be a brief trawl through  the food halls. Somehow I ended up discussing Poulet Bresse with the head butcher, two foodies having a chat. The day was meant to be All About Art. Instead I decided to wander around, with a vague intention of seeing the new White Cube in Bermondsey.

So a walk down to the West End. First time I’d seen the new plaza outside the Connaught with a fountain that produces the faintest of rain clouds. In Barclay Square, as ever, enthralled by the sheer height of the Plane Trees. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford a Saville Row suit, because one is never enough, but I get enormous pleasure seeing them in the shop window and knowing the craft is alive and flourishing.

Cork Street very flash-commercial but at the top end a gallery showing prints by Howard Hodgkin, which I wasn’t expecting. Any more than the party of ladies-who-lunch, being lectured by an Authority, expected me to join them. It was either that or wait in the street. A few polite smiles and then, on seeing that I wasn’t wearing designer anything, they unconsciously gripped their handbags tighter. I must have looked like an artist.

Turkish coffee, medium sweet, and the Guardian small crossword in Brewer Street. Then to Victoria just because, and it’s private. Lucked into a free concert promoting the West End and saw three numbers from Chicago plus the lead from Billy Elliot doing the Electricity song and dance number who couldn’t have been more than fourteen. So far a day of talent and surprises. It got better.

Found my way to Bermondsey Street and the new White Cube Gallery. Used to live a mile or so further East and was fascinated to see how the area’s changed. Always was ripe for gentrification, some had begun twenty years ago, but for the most part the changes have kept alive the spirit and the feel of the place. New plazas or streets have kept the shape of the old. Nothing too tall, the intimacy still there. I loved it and the gallery – all together now and sing: Am-ayzing Space – but not the Hirsts, very second year at art school. However there was also video art and for once extremely arresting and even profound. Well, thoughtful at least.

Then the glass-blowing workshop, one of whose founders I knew from Rotherhithe before developers made the workshop leave the river-side. Shown around the exhibition by one of the glass-blowers who knew I wasn’t a buyer, but happy to talk about the craft. By now hungry and behold! just up the road a Vietnamese cafe, so I could sit outside in the sun with a chicken pho ga (spicy noodle soup) and a Vietnamese iced coffee.

From there it had to be the Shard (London’s latest, needle pointed, slim pyramid of a sky-scraper) which doesn’t celebrate what was, or is now, but what will come. If you ever  get the chance, stand at the base and look up to follow the building’s lines towards infinity – and wonder how something so vast can be so graceful unlike, say, those Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a clumsy proof that mere size is never enough.

Along to Bankside and more building activity – don’t they know there’s a recession on? – and two girls, good classical musicians, busking under Blackfriar’s bridge. Across the foot bridge from Tate Modern to St Pauls, giving one of the most fascinating views of the Thames and London skyline you can find. And there’s another thing: just as the city’s people are so varied, so too are the buildings. There is no pattern, as in New York; and any a touch of Parisian grandeur is modified by a nearby street-urchin of a building ‘aving a laugh. By now my feet are aching – it will be a twelve mile walk – but in a what the hell mood I traipsed down Ludgate Hill, into Fleet Street (The Royal Courts of Justice have been given a good old wash and brush up), the Strand and finally back to China Town to buy some bamboo steamers for my nephew.

I must have looked tired because a Chinese or Thai woman in her early forties, perhaps, offered me a ‘mass-ah-gee’. Smiling politely I made my excuses and left. Nice to know I don’t look like a cop. Turned the corner and there by the dragon statues stood another girl busker, this time Chinese and playing a Chinese flute. I’m not an expert by any means, other than having lived in Singapore years ago, but to me she was pretty damn good. Gave money, stood watching until she finished and bowed to me. I bowed back. We smiled. I went to buy the steamers. That was also the London I love.

This much I know about the countryside: nothing very much happens here. Anything that does, tends to happen again. And again. There is, or can be, a sense of wildness and freedom but only in places like Dartmoor, Snowdonia, the Peak District or the Scottish Highlands. And they aren’t going anywhere. Miss them today and they’ll be waiting to morrow. As will badgers, foxes or deer and guess what? They’ve all moved to the city. If you’re open to it, every day London will remind you of the weird, the sublime and perhaps the horrible. That’s why it’s magical, its history briefly glimpsed in the flap of a pigeon’s dusty wing as it tries to escape the Peregrine falcons, whose pigeon-fancying life-style has made them Londoners whether they know it or not.


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It’s no joke, being without a muse

I need one. That’s a muse. Female preferably, who will sit and listen to the day’s work while making the occasional comment but more frequently, sighs of delight and appreciation. I will have begun the day knowing, perhaps longing for this time. It provides a necessary end point for the day, a bridge between imagination and the outside world. It validates the last few hours’ work, now to be listened to by a real person. It allows me to catch those mistakes and uglies I miss on screen or when reading aloud to myself. The very idea of her has illuminated my imagination. Never uncritical, always wanting me to do my very best work, grimacing slightly, prettily, at any self-indulgence.

The position is unpaid but there will be wine. And a dedication.   Please apply soon. I’m almost done and there’s something missing. . .


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Thanks, David Hockney. . . and the last shall be Hirst.

A magic Saturday to see Hockney at the Royal Academy. But always a bitter sweet moment when I get to London: thrilled to be home again, sad that it won’t be for long. Get on the tube, expecting it to be humming with Kindles. Not a one to be seen, but people are reading books and magazines. That’s so good to see. Reached the RA at 10.30 to be told the queue is already two hours long, advised to return later in the afternoon. So off for a wander around the West End, which has to include checking out the booze store at Wardour and Old Compton Streets. The game is to see how many of the hard liquor bottles in the window I’ve ever tasted. As usual, it’s way less than half. That never happens at Sainsbury’s. Across the road the French patisserie has the usual display of drool-making tartes, better than Maison Valerie. But it’s the culture I really miss, honest.

Pop into the National Gallery for a quick scan of an Impressionist display. Quite lovely, a Van Gough new to me and for some reason I’m intrigued by Seurat’s technique. It’s wonderful to get so close to the art. By now definitely peckish so wander off and find a Malayan restaurant at the bottom end of Haymarket. Good news is the service and tea made with condensed milk. Not so good, that the Nasi Goreng is too soggy. But they also have Linghams Chilli sauce on the table, so bearable. Then a  meander back towards Piccadilly and past the Japanese Centre, which is where I should have gone for lunch. Fresh sushi  – you can watch the chef’s preparing it – and every other kind of Japanese food, all at ridiculously low prices. That’s for me, next time.

Well, I’ve been in the RA queue for an hour when a family comes up with a spare ticket, pre-ordered, because someone couldn’t be there. Cushti. And the show was brilliant. The first artwork was a vast canvas of the Grand Canyon, incredible rusts and browns, ochres and reds and it made me smile from sheer pleasure. In fact, as my nephew said, the entire show was completely joyous, one man’s exuberant love affair with landscape and his own art. Interestingly, Hockney’s technique in the more recent, Yorkshire, series is a brutal, almost abstract pointilism, the ultimate daub (how lucky I’d seen those Seurat paintings earlier). But then you stand back and the picture resolves into a scene of wonderful, delicate observation. And the colours! Intense but never absurd, no matter how extreme. It was the kind of show where complete strangers talk to each other – I was one – just to share the wonder and the joy. There were quite a few kids there, toddlers, and they were also spellbound. . . as were all the visitors from Yorkshire, self-confessed art ignorants, who’d come down to see how their boy had done. While overall there was a near spiritual quality to the work, not in the Christian/Buddhist/whatever sense, but an underlying transcendence. That said, no surprise to have seen Pan deep in the shadows. In these landscapes nature comes alive. Hockney has to be one of the world’s greatest living artists.

Was going to go and see the Damien Hirst, but it would have only made me grumpy. Next to Hockney, Hirst is not an artist but a brand. His work belongs more to the world of advertising art, to a startling window display at Harvey Nicks’. Well, of course it does. Hirst was always a Charles Saatchi creation, the work testament to the commercialisation of Western society. Conceptual art only succeds when the concept itself is interesting, even profound. With Hirst’s work the execution disguises the banality of the thought behind it, just as a superbly produced advertising campaign can sell a product no better or worse than thousands of others. On the other hand, if you view Charles Saatchi as the real artist, and Hurst as a technique, then the ‘work’ become far more interesting. But still not something I want to pay good money to go and see. There again it is about commercialisation, so a free show would be missing the point. Or would it be ironic? Anyway, who gives a fuck?

And so back by train to deepest Dorset, part of the way sitting opposite an autistic teenager and his patient, very loving father, another life-affirming experience.

It was a good day.

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The Queen. In Sherborne. Let’s all go hide in the cemetery.

First, sorry not to have posted in so long, not that you gave a damn  – no anxious e-mails, ‘where are you?’ – but there was a health scare which is now okay so feel free to feel guilty. The other thing, that I was finishing off a novel as in re-writing the damn thing and that left little time for blogging. Lots of time for net-surfing and generally avoiding the re-write, but nothing remotely useful.

So Big News down here is yes, as part of Her Royal Progress, the Chair and CEO of HM Queen and Sons is coming to Sherborne. Our Mayor – who probably considers Thatcher a dangerous socialist – is already quivering in ecstasy. Meanwhile Eric the Cleric who minds the Abbey is brushing down the episcopal purple and wondering how to keep the local bishop away. And the town council has decided that all shops will be offered special red and white hanging baskets at a mere £77.00 a pop. Now this might sound expensive but someone has to make a profit, and while the baskets aren’t compulsory, Eyebrows Will Be Raised should anyone refuse.

Thing is, people in their eighties only ever come to Sherbome to die. There was a previous post about this annoying practice but they’re still coming. Maybe I should have used extra-large print. Anyway, the local cemetery is filling up sharpish but the Town Council has just come up with the solution: expand into the children’s playground next door. It wouldn’t stay a playground, of course, but that doesn’t matter as the kids live in social housing so clearly don’t matter.

Now this isn’t to suggest that the Queen, gawd bless ‘er, is coming here to die. Aside from anything else, one would not welcome Special Branch crawling all over this blog. But what with her age. . . and Sherborne’s record with the elderly. . . and the fuss about not enough room in the graveyard. . . it’s possible that the Mayor and others might have considered the possibility. You can see the attraction: to be part of an international, historic drama with the opportunity to weep gracefully in public. But would they really imagine that their Monarch, gawd bless ‘er, would actually be buried here? What about the Windsor family plot in Nunhead Cemetery near Peckham, London? And Golders Green Crematorium is long overdue a Royal burn-up. Well, never underestimate the power of dreams. More to the point, a little known bye-law states that anyone dying in the town has to be buried locally under penalty of ear-cropping and a fine of three groats. This dates from when the Digby family, local landowners and traditional suppliers of courtesans to the gentry, were official Parish grave-diggers. To  this day each Digby male has to dig a grave on his eighteenth birthday, although nowadays it’s more of a quick scrape with a rusty trowel. Still, both tradition and bye-law live on, with the possibility of an unseemly argument, perhaps even a tug-of-war, over burial rights.

So please, Ma’am, stay the hell away from Sherborne, for all our sakes.

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It’s been a long time. . .

. . . but I had stuff to do. One time, this was going to be daily. Think I’ll settle for weekly. Won’t feel so bad about missing the odd post or two, and I’ll have all week to pretend I’ll write it tomorrow.

I belong to a couple of writers’ groups, based in the States. Well, they’re more organised than us over here. Anyway, you know how it is, you know it’s going to be a disappointment, you’ll end up all angry and frustrated, but you still watch Chelsea when they’re on terrestial. Or England play rugby. Sorry, that should read ‘try to play rugby’. Neither of these have anything to do with writers’ groups, other than the pretentiousness so often on show. ‘ Sylvia Snodgrass’, someone will sign herself (no, not literally) adding ‘Literary Writer, Inspiring Mentor, Gifted Mystic and Loved By Cats’.

I suspect that to be a writer in the States you have to have a cat. Or would have one, possibly two, if the landlord allowed. I just love that streak of sentimentality in a nation where a kid of ten can be sentenced to life imprisonment, and life means life. True, the kid might have killed someone (probably over a cat) but even so. No parole, no release when the men in white coats say, but life. And before anyone says that actually this is restricted to certain States, I know. Also o get a little p’d off with Americans saying don’t blame us for all the executions, especially when the condemned has the mental age of a chicken, that’s Texas. Oh, really?  Washington is happy to sanction countries it thinks are bad, like Cuba. Or South Africa over apartheid. So why hasn’t Texas been sanctioned for all those executions? Or any State that locks up children for life? They could be refused Federal funding. The Dallas Cowboys excluded from the National Football League. The Miss Pre-Pubescent American Beauty Contest forbidden to stage pageants in the relevant States. There could be an arms embargo – less arms and ammunition, less chance of a fatal argument breaking out over kittens.

Now here’s the point. Finally. So many of the US members of these sites are serious Christians. . . with the occasional ‘me too, I never bombed no-one’ Muslim to keep the pot melting. There are plenty who aren’t, but it does appear that a belief in Christian values is as important as a love of cats and a really pretentious self-description if you want to be taken seriously as a writer in the US of A. Okay, none of this applies to Studs Terkel, Jimmy Breslin, John Updike, Ross Thomas and hundreds of others who actually made it big-time. I’m talking about the mainstream and the wannabees, the soul of a nation, the US version of a Daily Mail reader or someone who can read the Sun without moving their lips.

And it’s all the Internet’s fault. Millions of web-sites and forums. Bloody e-books. Quality control has vanished. The meek, the dumb, the ignorant and the smug have inherited the electronic world, are drowning out raw talent and genuine emotion with their mewling and purring and saccharine playfulness, all in the names of creativity and democracy and open access to all, because everyone’s entitled to make a living any way they can and you better not disagree, mister, or we’ll come and take away your cat.

Well, I’m glad we got that  sorted out. Tea, anyone?

Oh, one other thing: far as I’m concerned the best, the greatest English writing in the past fifty, hundred years has overall been American. They make pretty good movies, too.

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So long, Dave

No, nothing about D Cameron Esq, even if he may actually be a disguised lizard – of the human flesh-eating variety – if Charlie Booker in the Guardian’s to be believed. And why wouldn’t we believe Charlie? His world’s a sight more interesting than the usual one. No, this is about a guy called David Haslam and a dream, his and mine.

Mine first. Dreams, actually. About ten days ago, very vivid and about Canada. I lived there for several years and the dreams centered on Toronto, with an occasional segue to New York. The dreams stayed with me and I began thinking about my old friend David Haslam who I hadn’t seen in years although we’d once been pretty close. David had also had dreams, about producing movies and before that the first freebie movie magazine which was where I came in – as an acting and mostly unpaid assistant editor. Why? Because it was fun and because David was brilliant at weaving you into his dream. The magazine was called Marquee and even after I left Canada, David made sure I always got an airmail copy of the latest edition, until it closed in 2004. Like I said, we lost touch although I’d tried Googling him without success. This time, after the dreams, I tried again. Success – of a sort. I got his obituary. David Haslam had died a few days beforehand. . . around the time I’d been dreaming of Canada, which is not something I ordinarily do. Cue spooky music, which is apt because David had been involved with the X Files. With the Power Rangers franchise, too, but that had been a money thing. X Files he’d loved.

David was generous, single-minded, fair and quite ruthless when it came to Marquee. He was more like a New Yorker than a Canadian (originally from New Brunswick), with that same Gotham quick, sometimes savage, even Jewish humour. Back in the day we developed two comedy routines. One was about a new car designed for the ethnic market called the Black Panther, complete with whitey-wall tyres, crushed-pimp velour and a horn which went ‘honky-honky-honky’. There was more, but that gives the – nowadays probably distasteful – flavor. The other one concerned the few beggars who, sadly, sometimes froze to death during the Canadian winter. No details, but it was bad. Funny, but bad. So one time a writer came by looking for work, just in from sensitive Vancouver and we tried them out. He was not amused. He said, with a righteous contempt he obviously enjoyed, that there was no way he’d even consider working for Marquee. Just as well, since he was a crap writer and David found it hard to say no.

Now it might seem strange to celebrate a man’s life with such a trivial – and okay, dubious – episode. But I remember David as someone who could and would laugh at everything. I remember  a friend who was always there if I needed him. Also someone who could exasperate the hell out of a saint. He was an original and one who stayed in Canada which didn’t happen all that often. Most of ’em used to end up in LA or New York.

Here’s the thing. If there’s anyone you were once close to, but now lost touch, seek them out. Might end up wondering why you bothered since people do change. . . but if nothing else you can ask why the hell they didn’t try get in touch with you. In this case, easy: far as David was concerned I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Damn. I can hear his laugh like it was yesterday.


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Can it come out to play?

DORSET Home to the JURASSIC COAST‘. That’s what the sign said on the Somerset border, and it set me wondering. Not about Dorset’s pride in a pretty impressive, sixty-five mile stretch of coast older than Joan Collins’ plastic surgeon. Even the UN thinks the Jurassic Coast is special. There again, the UN also thinks Angelina Jolie and Ginger Spice are also special, so perhaps not such a great endorsement after all. No, it’s just that I’d never thought of a cliff face – one that’s forever crumbling around the Charmouth – having a home. Being one, no problem. Gulls, fossils, plants and briefly, the occasional unhappy or unlucky human. Also a temporary abode for numerous cute little dogs and confused-looking sheep. Cliffs – if only they could talk:

Might be a fossil to you, mate, but I knew that ammonite when it was a kid‘.

Sometimes I feel life’s just slipping away.’

Not another bloody dog.’

But if South Dorset’s home, does the Jurassic Coast ever leave it? Did the Alps come round to play when it was young? Were there birthday parties with glaciers doing the entertainment? Come to think of it, what with all those different strata, the Coast’s more like a family, which means an altogether more interesting sign:                              DORSET THE JURASSIC COAST FAMILY HOME. CLOSED SUNDAYS.

Even a coast needs a day off.


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Pack Monday! The World’s worst street fair!

Next Monday is Pack Monday, once a proper fair with horses and everything. Not any more. You would think that a town with Sherborne’s pretetensions, sorry, I mean pride in its past, would try for something a bit special. Maybe a medieval jongleur or street music. Interesting and colourful stalls. You’d be wrong. The most overpriced tat imaginable. Stalls selling fashion-disaster clothes as worn by illegal immigrants hidden in the back of a truck, but more expensive than Primark. Mexican food stalls presided over by couples who thought the franchise would help with retirement. It doesn’t. Worse, from another that sickly stink of stewed onions – ‘Wot people want, luv’ – served with a wedge of meat-flavoured grease. But it’s Pack Monday, it’s traditional and it ain’t gonna change. Most of the local shops shut up shop for the day and the pubs hire in serious muscle because even worse than the stalls are the people they attract.

They come down from the hills, nervous and defiant in their annual trip to the outside world. Some so fat they’re airlifted in by huge Russian helicopters because the roads would only shatter under the weight. Staring in amazement at anyone not wearing a track suit and trainers. Giving little cries of wonder at all the luxuries on show. It could be the annual outing of the Jeremy Kyle Show. Mmm. Is this where he finds them?

That said, I do get a certain kick out of Pack Monday. For one day a year the town’s genteel pretense is punctured by naked greed. Sherborne isn’t a haven. It doesn’t exist to promote a kinder, more civilized world. It’s there to make money, baby.

Anyway it can.


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Sucking Sherborne

So, a very good friend shows up who used to live here until she saw sense and went back to civilisation. And we go out for a meal, together with her gentleman friend who still lives here, despite being from foreign parts and knowing better. It has been one of those on/off relationships that suggest the gods are squabbling over the remote control again. They are also amongst the few people in Sherborne I can talk to without wondering where the groundhog is hiding. Pub conversations around here repeat the same topics, even the same words, although the latter do become more slurred as the day wears on. Mostly those topics are about: the fantasy football league; badgers; the pool league; horse racing; who got drunk the night before; the inferiority of Blacks and Gays, especially when compared to badgers; Daily Telegraph quick crossword; local bankruptcies; how Maggie T would sort everything out; beer; and, occasionally, why can’t Lee Child write a thriller featuring badgers. Curiously enough the only people who’ll openly talk about art are a builder, originally from Yorkshire, and a grumpy Mancunian who also loathes Sherborne. I’m thinking of inviting the latter to join the Escape Committee, the tunnel’s already half-way towards the A303 and could have been there by now but the badgers keep on filling it in.

Anyway, to the Indian which has finally changed its menu so it’s possible to avoid the ‘one-sauce-fits-all’ trap. And we’re chatting away, the Returnee trying to persuade her Gentleman Friend to bring up a load of logs the next time he visits. One thing we do cheaper and better down here is logs. It helps stop people thinking. The conversation is is lighthearted and reaches the following stage:

Me (lightheartedly): And you also get to stay with your Sweet Patootie (which is a reference to Cheers, in case you think I went mad).

Gentleman Friend. (Looks down at his plate) Oh. (Worried). You mean I have to spend the night?

Which at the time was very funny and quick and so very much not the kind of quip one normally hears around here. And trivial or not this sums up what I most miss about London and places near. Next day I went back to digging the tunnel.

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First past the Proust

So in a few days dominated, for me, by England’s debacle in the rugby world cup, closely followed by all the usual self-serving cliches from Twickenham’s senior management (MEMO to Martyn Thomas and Rob Andrew: neither of you are part of the solution. You are both part of the problem). Amidst all that there were two magical moments to make October worth-while.

Both were from an old black and white movie on television: The Gay Divorcee with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. God, but I love to watch Astaire and Rogers dance. Grace, wit and a delight in each others’ skill, the near-impossible made to look easy. Anyway, at one moment Astaire adjusted his tie-pin – and suddenly I was maybe fourteen again and wearing my own tie-pin for the very first time. One of those Proustian moments when you can scent long forgotten emotions, when you know what was going through your mind (pride because back then tie-pins were part of growing up) without remembering the actual scene. It wasn’t a black-tie and tails occasion, though. It was check shirt and woolen tie, gent’s casual clothing suitable for the city and the tie-pin would have been my late father’s idea. There was a remembered sense of him being there and I wonder if that’s how the dead remember the living, in small perfect moments rather than great life-changing ones.

In the same movie, an exterior of a hotel supposedly at Brighton which somehow reminded me of the old Odeon cinema where High Street Kensington morphed into Olympia. Now a multi-screen with Art Deco/1950’s wedding cake interior architecture – all those false balconies and raised double clefs, only ever seen in cinemas – long vanished.

Good to be reminded of the optimism of youth.

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