Tuesday, March 30, 2004


I just don't know where to start! The tackiness seemed to go on forever and that 'bracing' wind was whittling away at my bones. I was at a seaside resort on the Lincolnshire coast called Skegness - sadly enough the name is a good indication of the general attractiveness of the surrounds - to attend the Evangelical Alliance stand for a few days at a four week Christian Conference. I had spent the entire weekend gushing on about my paid holiday in Skegness, an excitement that vastly amused my English friends, who warned me repeatedly not to expect much. The three hour train journey out to Skeggie (or Skeggers – my attempt at a more Australian ring – it never caught on) was brilliant. I finally traveled out of the South East of England and I was glued to the windows watching the most fabulous countryside unroll before me. There was a particularly lovely section of the trip where the train chugged through low, hedge-rowed hills that hid so many little towns that as one church spire passed out of sight, the next one hove to view.

The actual holiday sites of Skeggie were like nothing I had ever seen - huge caravan parks with caravans as far as the eye can see on either side of the coastal road, or the bigger sites like the one we stayed at, with roller coasters, pools, pavilions the size of the Dome and pubs, clubs and cinemas. It looked more like holiday hell than holiday heaven to me. Katy and I were staying in a two-room apartment, one little apartment in a block of ten that was in a huddle of four that was in a collection of 40 that was one of six huge sections of housing. The site could hold up to 8,500 people in peak season *shudder*

At least there was the beach combined with the incredibly unusual and surprisingly clear weather! The site we were staying on had a substantial beach front BUT the camp site was completely fenced off and those staying in the camp could only access the beach from 9 to 5. On Monday I did not get out of our chalet until 5.30 and almost cried when I realised the closest I could get to the first beach I had seen in almost 7 months was to peer sadly at it through a huge fence. I must have looked so lost, walking the entire length of the fence looking for another gate and periodically pressing my face forlornly against the bars.

On Tuesday, as the spectacularly fine weather was holding, Katy banished me from the stand to go and sit on the beach. What a treasure. I was a very happy little Aussie, sitting on the beach in a jumper and a coat with it's hood protecting me from that 'bracing' North Sea wind, watching the Mad (dogs and) Englishmen paddling in the shallows in their shorts. I had forgotten how well I think with a blue sky meeting a heaving sea on a watery horizon.

The actual town of Skegness was familiar – it reminded me of the towns down south with their year-round residents mostly in the retirement age bracket and the winter desertion of shops and arcades – yet horribly different as you approach the beach and are swamped by the roller coasters, seal parks, bowling alleys and mini-golf courses. I did spend most of my time on the camp site however, which was not too bad. Katy and I had pub evenings, we played ten pin bowling (I wiped the floor with Katy) and I even played pool with some of the other exhibitors. Now, for anyone that has ever seen me wield a cue, this story will seem preposterous – but I actually played a smashing game of pool. I potted four balls AND sunk the black to win the game! I was so VERY VERY surprised at my prowess in the bowling lane and on the pool table I decreed Skegness the Claire Sporting Capital of the World! Even more impressive is the little fact that I even had a minor romantic interlude for three days with a charming Scotsman, just home from three years as a missionary in Africa. I will say that romantic perambulations o'conversations along windy Lincolnshire strands with accented men are highly underrated!

I was supposed to stay for just five days, but when I handed over to the next group of EA members Kat and Richard bothered me for almost 24 hours to stay – so I did. One must always look after one's public! The second week at Skeggie was great fun – Richard and I particularly ran amok in a completely sensible way and I was very sad to run the gauntlet of spindly spires back down to the dusty, dirty city ...

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Square Mile

I know the Square Mile MUCH better now – after that night I made sure one day a week was set aside to wander the streets without a map and with no direction. I went to the Alternative Fashion Week in the Spitalfields markets - shows put on by students with the most fabulous designs and ideas - after which I followed the crowds to Petticoat Lane markets and the beautiful arcades of Bishopsgate. I walked a substantial part of the ruins of the Roman Walls - a wonderful trek that has you darting down dark alleys to find oasis' of Roman ruins in landscaped gardens. I strolled down the dark valleys of the roads radiating off the Bank junction, vast stone walls looming above the pavement and hiding an amazing array of churches, pubs and Roman temples beneath its corporate facade.

My favourite part of the immediate neighbourhood however is the Barbican Center, which is a huge complex of apartments, conference centers, cinemas and theatres that is like a small 1960's space station set down in the middle of the City. It has no roads and is crisscrossed with vast long walkways that take you through rooftop gardens, across the feet of huge residential towers and over waterways and cafes. Fi and I went for an early morning stroll a few nights ago after a crawl of the Old Street bars. It was 3am on Easter Sunday and the City was pretty dead anyway, but once in the Barbican, with the noise of the light traffic gone, the scene was very post-apocalyptic. We were the only moving creatures in a wilderness of concrete and perfect gardens. You could almost imagine a Mad Max-like scenario of rival gangs holding the three towers with dangerous urban wastelands between. My, those sultry late nights do excite the brain.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Sun at midnight

The biggest exhibit at the Tate Modern Gallery for the last few months had been the Weather Project, a vast sun made up of powerful lights and an opaque plastice disc setting in a vast turbine hall with a mirrored ceiling. For the last two nights of the exhibition the hall was open until 1am and I joined the crowd on the South Bank at midnight to see a Midnight Sun in wintery London. The Tate is housed in a huge factory and the turbine hall was vast, the mirrored ceiling opened it up even more and the air-conditioning pumped out air carrying dissolved sugar which gave the area a sulphurous glow. Coming out of the freezing night air off the Thames, the heat was incredible and familiar, I was grinning as I crossed the concrete floor to get closer to the much missed warmth. After walking behind the disc to look at the mechanics of the sun I joined the rest of the crowd on the concrete floor – once you had inspected the sun for more than five minutes the urge to watch yourself in the mirrors is overwhelming.

The sun and the crowd, taken from the floor in the mirrored ceiling.

First thing to imagine in this tale is that the mirrors reflected a black and grey world – something in the combination of the huge yellow lights and the air leached all the colour out of the room, leaving everyone's clothes, skin and hair in various shades of grey. Your correspondent was naturally dressed in large amounts of red when she walked in and spent the hour within in shades of deep purple-grey. I think I got a little skittish about this overpowering of my signature shade, which was made even worse when a girl came in wearing a red cardigan of synthetic material that somehow keep it's vibrant colour. The shock of the red colour in the uniform sea of grey was a sight in it's own right.

Once I had protected myself against the concrete floor with my formerly red, now grey, coat and pillowed my head on my formerly rainbow, now grey, scarf I started watching the crowd in the mirrors:

there was a couple synchronising their dance moves

a group doing a Mexican wave

a group in a star shape

a couple doing stylised yoga positions

people having gun fights

people doing the macarena

two boys whizzing around on their backs trying to tackle each other for a backpack (I talked to them for a while and the French one asked me to record in my account that the better looking one – him – won the game)

a solitary man swimming over the concrete, navigating his way through the more energetic groups

a couple doing the 'in a nut shell' mime from Austin Powers but from my position I could only see them reflected around a seam in the mirror that made them a composite of exactly half of each person ...

The crowd, taken from the floor in the mirrored ceiling.

We were shooed out at 1am and I caught a bus that was going 'close' to Old Street. I got out at Liverpool Street Station and decided to strike out without a map, without directions and without ever seeing that part of London before! It was a lovely balmy night and by this time the streets were thronging with drunken suits escorting tottering miniskirts home. I melded the directions from the maps in the bus shelters with the directions from the driver of a black cab and walked two sides of a triangle that resulted in my doorstep 45 minutes later.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

St Patrick's Day

Kim is a fantastically conscientious traveler and around February had proposed a twelve hour tour of Dublin for St Patrick's Day – Kim, Monica, Matt and I were the lucky revelers who attended. We flew out of London at 5pm, Matt and Monica from Stansted, Kim and I from Gatwick, and were in the middle of Dublin by 8pm. Kim was the only one who knew anything or anyone in the city so we spent the night in various bars meeting people who knew Kim, or people who knew people who knew Kim, or people who wanted to know Kim ...

We met random drunk but hilariously funny Scotsmen and Matt and Monica found themselves a philosopher wandering the streets of Dublin at 3 o'clock in the morning. Since we had optimistically envisaged partying all night and had not arranged accommodation – something I would not recommend doing anywhere – we also met two lovely Irishmen who offered us a couch for the few hours before our 8am flight back to London. These two lovely men were called Liam and Ronan and I am proud to say that even in my exhausted and frozen state I did not mention Ronan Keating AT ALL!

Friday, March 12, 2004

Regency Bucks Ahoy

After my terrible defeat at the hands of the RAA and the ensuring debacle of the love affair with an exorbitantly priced bracelet, I got back on the horse and attended a free lecture at the National Portrait Gallery on Dandyism. The Regency Period, when the first dandy, Beau Brummell, lived his life, was the flavour of my March for a few different reasons. I had stayed home every Saturday from mid-February to watch Regency House Party – a show documenting 12 modern singles living in Regency costume in a Regency house with all the attendant Regency strictures and conditions. They had their social places, no access to anything other than Regency entertainment and they could only bathe once a week. It was pure heaven for me, though a bit embarrassing to admit to when you were turning down Saturday night invitations. It addition to this interactive immersion in Regency culture, I had also committed a small crime in order to obtain myself even more Regency bliss – I stole a book!

Now, much as I flippantly describe my little escapade as 'Jack's criminal indifference to the actual ownership of an unloved book', as soon as I finish it I am returning it to its uncaring owners – our local pub. Fi and I have become regular fixtures at the Foundry on a Sunday night. The Foundry appears to be a labour of artistic love on behalf of its owners – it is a building with absolutely no trimmings that is decorated only by haphazard furniture and ever-changing displays of art and installation from diverse artists. On Sunday it hosts Worm World, which starts at about 6pm and is an open mike night for poets, anchored by command performances from the Worm Lady, who recites, as her name indicates, poems about worms. The first night Fi made me sit on the saggy leopard print couch I was just bemused by the collection of weird and wonderful people, the second Sunday I joined in when the crowd recited some of the better known worm poems with the Worm Lady and the third night – well – I was hooked.

The saggy leopard print couch which is our Sunday night home is next to a bookcase of what appear to be donated books – there is a shelf of Mills and Boons that has only three titles but eight copies of each title, there are 1980's primary school text books on Australia, there are Architectural books, there was a book on the Silver Fork novelists of the Regency period ... The funniest thing is reading the children's book on Australia. If its 1970's pictures of Australian suburbia is not amusing enough, seeing a picture of Perth without half it's skyscrapers and captioned 'The mining boom town Perth' is enough to make you want to claim having being born in Sydney.

I digress. I went to the talk on Dandyism and had a fabulous evening – the panel was made up of three well known authors who kept a lively discussion going on the elements of style, the role of 'cool' in an intriguing demeanour and the place of the epigram in diverting conversation. One of the panellists became my personal favourite because he managed to make every sentence an epigram of Wildean stature – a talent not displayed often in conversation today.

Towards the end of the talk was question time, and I began to feel like I was in a tutorial at uni, so I warmed up and began to mutter cutting remarks under my breath. This prompted the girl next to me to utter one of the nicest compliments – she leant across and asked me to repeat my comment louder so the front could hear it as she thought it was amusing. Well done that girl. I lurked by the door and watched the modern day dandies filing out of the lecture theatre, straightening their cuff links and bending their dapper heads to dote upon their silk-stockinged girlfriends. A charming affair old chap.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Bond Street

By the end of February I realised that, despite the fact I had been in London for 8 months, there were still some museums that I had not seen. I embarked on a Museum and Gallery bender, to commence at the Royal Academy of Arts on my Tuesday off. Jacinta and I met in Piccadilly Circus only to discovered that my bender was getting off to a bad start - my cultural event was the next week.

So we went window shopping, as one does. We started out at Fortnum & Masons and went on to the lovely Regency Burlington Arcade that had its own guards and rules, including no whistling, singing or hurrying, and then Jacinta took me down Bond Street. Ooooooh, the shops! Unfortunately we had dressed down for the museum visit and I was too shy to sully the doorsteps of Cartier, Alexander McQueen and Gucci with my £20 pound sneakers and bad hair. We did go into Tiffany & Co though. Nice stuff. Once we got out of Tiffany’s we spotted a film crew with camera and presenter and another group that may have been paparazzi. As the man with the camera and mobile raced past us I heard him saying ‘I’m not going to be in Spain this weekend …’ oh the high life eh?

Just as we strolled off Old Bond Street and onto New Bond Street I spotted a small jewelers, and, more specifically, the most beautiful bracelet imaginable in the window. I promptly forgot all vanity in the desire to wear said bracelet, so I rang the bell, was buzzed in, and boldly asked to look at the bracelet in the window. The darling object was placed upon my wrist and I was officially the best dressed person in the entire world. Now, either I actually played my part very well or the sales girl was just extremely good, but she treated me as a buyer and as soon as I said hello assumed I was ‘exporting the bracelet to a buyer in Australia’ Oh la la. She wrote down two prices for me – export price and normal price. I had fallen in love with a £13,000 bracelet. The pain. So I told the girl I would ‘talk to my buyer’ and left, promising in my heart to find that elusive job that would enable me to buy such a trinket …