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IT’S A STRANGE TIME to be living in London just now: a time of swingeing cuts, loss of arts and other grants, the specter of mass unemployment and threatened closures of anything from theaters and libraries to museums and big-name stores. Yet, it’s also a time of real innovation, from artists and unconventional entrepreneurs who have big ideas and very small amounts of cash. The result is some of the most exciting stuff I’ve seen in years going on in London, even if you do need to scratch beneath the surface of the usual visitor trappings to find it.
Take the pop-up phenomenon. Although “pop-up” is just a funky word for “temporary,” it’s brought a new way of enjoying art to the people who make the effort to find it. It’s mainly in shops or offices, where there is some lease remaining on the building. Artists move in to shops and offices, often where the owners have been forced to close, creating exhibitions, galleries and curious shops on an ad-hoc basis, often with amazing results. Although it’s nigh-on impossible to keep a tab on what’s happening at any one time (Time Out occasionally flags-up the odd one or two) the joy is in discovering something unique that will only be there for weeks at most. Basically, you just need to keep your eyes (and occasionally your mind) open.
My favourite pop-up of the summer was Harry’s Bar—a pop-up pub on top of a multi-story car park in Peckham you wouldn’t have known was there until you actually reached it. Invisible from the outside, even when you got inside the decidedly dodgy elevator that cranked its way nearly to the top (you had to walk the final few floors of the deserted lot) when you at last reached the bar, you were treated to a fabulous panoramic view of the capital. The food and drink were only so-so (mainly consisting of Campari-based cocktails and fried dishes), but I can’t think of anyone who went there for the menu.
Pop-ups are at the edge of the myriad quirky things going on in London just now. There seems to be more to choose from than ever, from lectures (ranging from the scholarly through the esoteric to the just plain mad), guided tours, minute museums, one-off openings, special rides and some very, very odd theater going on. It’s not all cutting-edge stuff, though. The most famous “visit” festival is Open City weekend, held in mid-September every year, where hundreds of buildings usually closed to the public are opened free of charge (this year’s star attraction was a lottery for tickets to go up the BT Tower), but quieter, smaller festivals are held across the city throughout the year.
The trick, of course, is to know what’s going on where and when, and to work out what you can just turn up to and what needs to be booked in advance. Although print magazines such as Time Out cover some events, you need to turn to the internet for the really deep stuff. There are many London sites, but my favourite is Ian Visits, a listings blog run by enthusiast Ian Mansfield. I discovered the site a few months ago, and it is pure gold for Londoners and visitors alike. You search the calendar for the dates you’re available to find events that Mansfield thinks sound interesting. He steers clear of the obvious tourist events, instead choosing the really obscure things that it would take a month of Sundays to find on your own. Most of his choices are free or very cheap.

NOT EVERY London attraction is in the center, and I was keen to see Hall Place, a magnificent 1537 historic house in Bexleyheath, 15 minutes down the A2, after its extensive restoration a couple of years ago. A magnificent panelled Tudor Great Hall, with gigantic leaded windows and a minstrel’s gallery you could fit the Royal Philharmonic into, is just part of a warren of gorgeous rooms filled with exuberant fireplaces, fabulous moulded ceilings and dainty courtyards. Now, more than ever, it’s a sheer delight to visit, yet few people even know of its existence, not least because it’s tucked away behind 65 acres of magnificent formal gardens, lush water meadows, hothouses and lawns (including a curious little turf-maze.) I was particularly impressed with the least terrifying Royal Beasts in the land—a row of fabulous topiary mythical creatures originally clipped for the Queen’s coronation. Towering wyverns, dragons, lions, eagles, griffins and leopards, which must have, at one point, been rather scary figures, have, like so many of us, reached a paunchy middle-aged spread and, nearly 60 years on, are now decidedly tubby. They are delightful. Incredibly, admission is free.

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A sea of Bedouins watches Lawrence of Arabia. SECRET CINEMA[/caption]

OF COURSE, sometimes it’s not the spending of money that’s the issue, it’s making sure that it’s worth splashing out when you do. A phenomenon sweeping London just now is Secret Cinema, one of those genius ideas so simple that you can’t work out why it’s never been done before. When members of the Secret Cinema mailing list buy a ticket six weeks before the film is shown, all they know is the date. What the film will be or where it will be shown, they take on trust. The film could be a Western, a Fantasy, Sci-fi—anything. The venue could be an old warehouse, a disused office block or a railway shed. As the weeks go on, the organizers send out clues, starting very cryptic and gradually getting clearer as the event nears. Much discussion takes place online as to what the film might be. A couple of days beforehand, the venue coordinates are given, together with instructions for costuming.
I’d worked my way through Dune, Mad Max and Indiana Jones before I finally realized the movie was David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I still had a couple of days to get together my Bedouin outfit and arrange to meet my pal Tim at Alexandra Palace. As we got off the train in the setting sun and set out up the hill looking over London, we were joined by hundreds of other “Bedouins” in an array of varyingly authentic costume.
Together we were led on the rambling Road to Damascus through Alexandra Palace Park, which had been turned into a Middle Eastern fantasy. Shepherds in the distant fields tended (real) goats and donkeys; camel traders watered their caravans in little hollows. Musicians and hawkers seemed to be everywhere. Every so often some tribesmen on white stallions or atop more camels exhorted us to rebel against the evil British, waving scimitars and rifles. As we neared Alexandra Palace itself, bored British guards patrolled the compound in pith helmets and desert kit; we, as “natives” were allowed inside only slowly and even then only by showing our papers (tickets).
Once inside, we were subjected to interrogation from more British army officers, from behind rows of desks full of the trappings of bureaucracy; typewriters, pigeonholes, low lamps and paperwork. Some of us joined the Camel Corps, others played a sneaky game of billiards in the officers’ mess. I was impressed—until we walked into the next hall, which blew me away. An entire Arabian market, complete with hanks of wool hanging from the ceiling, dozens of stalls, henna artists, dancing girls, fountains, fortune tellers and the sizzling smells of Eastern cooking, all coming from real tents. Elsewhere, an oasis beckoned. I don’t even want to guess how many tons of sand they’d brought in. That was where I met Lawrence himself, atop his white stallion, ready to ally with the tribesmen. As we put down our rugs and cushions, settling down to watch the film on a giant screen in yet another hall, we were treated to a show from 150-odd actors, musicians and dancers (not to mention 30 animals), the action going on around us. All that for a £27.50 ticket. I call that a bargain.

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Sandra gives rave reviews to the lady-loving Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe. SHAKESPEARE’S GLOBE THEATRE[/caption]


Open City


Secret Cinema

Hall Place

Shakespeare’s Globe

THERE IS, however, one place of entertainment in London for which I never stint. I only ever buy top-price tickets for shows at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. The sight lines from any other seat I have found to be pretty dire, and tempting though the £5 “groundling” standing tickets are, I recommend you leave them to students or people who don’t intend to watch the whole play; believe me, you’ll want to watch all of this. The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is just about to go on a short tour of the U.S., is the best production I have seen at the Globe in five years. Perfectly cast, from the twinkly-eyed old stager Falstaff, played with huge glee by Christopher Benjamin, through two very game wives, Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward, to Andrew Havill whose Master Ford owes more than a little to Basil Fawlty, it’s a production to cherish. They’ve very sensibly made some neat cuts to some of the scenes (which I can’t believe were funny even in Shakespeare’s day), and it clips along with a verve and pace that left me giddy with giggles.
Next time, I’ll be hoping that the “Boris Bikes” will be taking pay-as-you-go customers, checking out the colorful past of the West End’s poshest arcade, and finding out how to look after paper.