Sunday, 29 May 2016

Wiveton Hall Walled Garden

Wiveton Hall walled garden is without doubt one of my favourite places. It is somewhere I bring beloved visitors from Russia. It's been open to the public since the cafe opened 9 years ago, and now with the runaway success of Normal for Norfolk, will be visited as never before. I went there on this misty bank holiday weekend, and it still feels magical and remote. 

Desmond and Chloe in the cafe

The gate to the secret garden

Until I was 17 we rented Dairy Cottage where Desmond’s Aunt Chloe now lives, for our summer holidays. Can there be a better place for children to run wild? 

The walled garden was somewhere we particularly liked to explore. We ate mulberries from the tree and played cards in the apple house in the middle of the night. Desmond had just branched out into soft fruit and the garden was still Aunt Chloe’s territory. Aunt Chloe, now famous thanks to Normal for Norfolk, has fingers as green as they can be. The garden was wilder then, as only she was gardening it, and utterly beautiful. 

It is still beautiful, but more professional - with flowers laid out in rows for the tables in the cafe, and vegetables. There is now a peony walk which is worth arranging one’s visit around (they will flower in June), and a herb area.

The walled garden has a puzzling shape - a triangle or wonky rhomboid - however if you look at the ground plan of Wiveton Hall from above it forms a corner. See below the great painting of the Hall and its grounds by Desmond's sister Mary. The north facing wall is high at its west end - this is because after the 1953 great flood, when it was flattened, it was rebuilt at a lower height.

Desmond pointed out to me that the wall had been rebuilt using concrete rather than lime mortar, and that whoever built it was paid for the job rather than by the hour as it all went up at once rather than in courses as the other walls are. The work is less fine but interesting to look at in contrast to the other walls.

Behind the great walls are flat saltwater marshes that stretch a mile to the North Sea. These walls create a microclimate that protect everything within from the harsh northern winds. This manmade miracle has created a secret world that Desmond, his mother and now his team, have preserved and enhanced over the years. As Desmond said in Normal for Norfolk 'some people grow christmas trees in their walled gardens; I wanted to try and keep it as a garden.' Although labour intensive, the garden provides for Desmond's table, the cafe, and the shop. 

Desmond’s father was playful - when he rebuilt parts of the wall, Desmond points out to me, he would insert some older masonry into the walls to strengthen it. Flint and lime walls are not strong enough alone - some strengthening is necessary - either bricks or pieces of masonry. This, his father would say gleefully, will confuse future architectural historians! Norfolk is full of churches and former monasteries and finding pieces of masonry on the wayside was common when Desmond was a child. 

reclaimed medieval stone masonry used by Desmond's father to reinforce newly repaired wall of the kitchen garden
In Edwardian times the brick path was built from the gateway creating a walkway through the garden. At this time the Hall had been bought by some wealthy Edwardian shipping merchants - and the 17th century Hall was extended, beautifully and subtly in the same style, in 1908. This brought it closer to the kitchen garden and at the time it was fashionable to make the kitchen garden a feature of the grounds, thus the brick walkway was constructed - for the perambulations of edwardian ladies in long skirts. They would walk between flowerbeds full of roses, sweet peas and lavender, lined by espaliered pear trees and sit at a bench beneath the high buttress. It is still a wonderful place to sit.

The Edwardian era brick path leading to the bench underneath the original high wall, behind which is the marsh and then the North Sea

Dairy Cottage, where we used to spend summers. 
beginning of Peony season, 2016

Looking up the path towards the gate 

The pond and apple house, with a wooden shingle roof

Corner of the garden, with stepped flint wall
The coursing in the flint wall on the left is clearly evident: bricks and flint

Wiveton Hall (1652, extended 1908) painted by Desmond's sister, Mary MacCarthy. Here you can see the shape of the kitchen garden and how it fits in with the form of the estate 

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Punk Angels of Shoreditch Church

Roll up, roll up, for the final couple of weeks of Development Hell - showing at St Leonard's, Shoreditch. If the name makes you feel gloomy, let me assure you, a visit to this church raises the spirits and the exhibition is full of humour as well as dark realities.

Development Hell was conceived and curated by Robin Hatton Gore who organises events at the church, to be "An exhibition of contested spaces in Shoreditch seen through art and documentation.” It is about local planning battles, which happen to be some of the fiercest in the country: Bishopsgate Goodsyard, Norton Folgate, and others. These fights have given rise to a great pulling together and creativity, and this exhibition exemplifies that. Development Hell acknowledges the importance of these fights - recognises their injustice - and celebrates the creativity of the campaigners, as well as giving campaigning tips.  The bravery and willingness of this church to be outspoken make it something of a crusader.

The elegant Grade 1 listed building was completed in 1740 by architect George Dance - though there has been a church on this busy Shoreditch junction for hundreds of years. Unlike the proposed new towers that the exhibition opposes, the church is positively engaged in the local community. It has a drop in centre for those suffering from addiction, 12 step meetings are held there, as are fundraising concerts for charities, and cultural events. 

The church’s vicar Paul Turp, a man of refreshing honesty, in and out of the pulpit, together with Robin, recognised that the community is not being given a voice in the gargantuan and invasive plans for the Goodsyard and Norton Folgate. They held a first exhibition last year drawing attention to these planning applications with a view to providing the community with a platform and empowering people to object. They have held several fundraisers in the church for the same purpose. 
Painting by Gram Hilleard 

This second exhibition is more ambitious and very much worth a look. Robin, an artist by training, has mounted the show beautifully in the light-filled gallery, rebuilt in the 1990s after it was stripped out by zealous Victorians in the 1870s. A fine organ, dating to 1756  presides over the exhibition.  

Other organisations taking part are: SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Spitalfields Trust - so fiercely battling for the right solution in Norton Folgate, and the terrifyingly named GAG - Goodsyard Action Group, fighting the Bishopsgate Goodsyard plans for a wall towering skyscrapers, together with action group More Light More Power

As a counterbalance to the threatening darkness, Robin invited artist Andrea Mclean who lent a picture depicting William Blake’s vision for a City of the Imagination, Golgonooza Other artists taking part are Gram Hilleard, Adam Dant, Jamie Reid and The Artist of the Ant, Paul Sakoilsky, Neil Cummings, Lucinda Rogers and photographer Max Reeves. 

Poet Stephan Micalef wrote some poems for the exhibition which are included. Earlier in May, Robin also organised a protest poetry evening of poets reading their work about the developments, with a Blakean theme, called Dark Satanic Millionaires.

Practical advice and inspiration for the campaigner are also here: SAVE’s vision for the Strand buildings that were almost demolished last summer, drawn by architect John Burrell, and their flowchart (created by myself and Mike Fox especially for the exhibition, and designed by Olga Gusarova Tchalenko.)

Robin has made some stunning posters for the exhibition that I include here: their punk aesthetic and thoughtful content are activism of a powerful kind. They have a Blakean theme, calling the campaigners 'recording angels', and the artists 'interpreting angels.’ I remember one of my predecessors at SAVE citing ‘wanting to be on the side of the angels’ as being a major motivation for developers to stop fighting the local community and to work with them. Let’s hope that this exhibition creates a few angels. Go and have a look and take your local property developer. 

The exhibition is open until 5th June between 12 and 2pm every day, or by appointment.  To make an appointment outside these hours contact Robin Hatton Gore: 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Moscow New Year 1993: Russian and other languages.

One day, Lex announced, into his moustache and with little enthusiasm, that Ira Vashchenko had bought tickets for the theatre. I still didn’t really know Ira and felt shy of her -  apart from in Liza’s home in Chiswick, I had only spoken to her a little, on New Year’s eve. Maybe because she knew Liza and I felt that I ought to have been able to speak Russian better than I did, or because I was agonisingly self conscious. I wore all grey clothes and army boots as I hadn’t known what to wear for a New Year’s trip to Moscow - that way I was camouflaged and vaguely sexless. Indeed, on getting off the metro at Arbatskaya a man took me under the arm one day and said ‘girls shouldn’t dress like this.’ It was an admonition. Ira, an artist, at that time painted the blind facades of buildings facing into courtyards with narrow strips of sky above them. She wore long skirts and pretty beads, and her hair was cut in a loose bob below her ears. She was smiling and joyful and even though she had strong opinions about things, she laughed easily.

The tickets were for Leshchi - The Wood Demon - by Gogol. I remember the papery tickets and the theatre foyer - the dim light emitted by the wall-mounted lighting, and the parquet floor, with its large pieces of wood, pale, varnished and well trodden. I don’t remember anything about the spektakl itself - I would have been happily sunk in my own thoughts, the alien words flying over my head. I remember coming out on to the street afterwards, all of us wrapped up in our winter clothes. Ira had on a long coat - she caught me by the arms, laughing, and span me around on the snowy street. I was startled and happy that she had done this, had shown me this much attention, but too shy to respond with anything but a smile, my body refusing to carry on the moment and swing itself around. I dropped my arms awkwardly. 

I was in the magical early period in my relationship with Russia when I felt I had nothing to offer, and was painfully aware of not being able to speak the language. I felt Ira had bigger fish to fry - other conversations to have. So her swinging me around in the snow was a great honour, that I didn’t know how to rise to. It was her way of talking to me. Most people have another language apart from actual words: Lex and I had the language of vodka - Yuri and I had his broken english - Sveta and Lex’s mother embraced me in their maternal kindness and the language of giving (lots of food) and Ira’s bother Senka and I spent an evening walking around Taganskaya in total silence eating ice-cream, him in a battered WW2 flying jacket. Needless to say, Ira and I now sit for hours chatting and drinking tea in the window of her Moscow apartment, the tree branches close up against the window. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

'My Stubborn Tongue'

This week Anna Fishbeyn came to Pushkin House with a performance that rocked the rafters of our 1703 abode: My Stubborn Tongue. Through acting and singing, with a piano accompaniment, Anna recounts the experience of moving to the U.S. as a 9 year-old child as part of the Jackson-Vanick agreement between the U.S. and Russia, when Russian Jews were, effectively, traded for grain. As she says: “America wanted the Russian Jews to demonstrate to the world how oppressive the Soviet Union was, and Russia needed grain, Russia was starving.” Against this bleak backdrop of human trading, Anna with great humour and insight recounts the ups and downs of being a Russian immigrant with an accent in the US at a time when people with accents were treated as second class citizens (as is still the case in some places). Anna watched her mother continue to be mistreated in department stores and restaurants simply because of her accent, and her family was repeatedly told to go back to Russia during their early years in the U.S.
The stunning Anna Fishbeyn in action
Anna decided to train her accent out of her tongue and to become as American as possible. She changed her name to Annie and spoke flawless English. But her roots were betrayed when her friends would come to her house to be fed Salat Olivye and encouraged to participate in the family’s regular after-dinner performances as her father played the balalaika and her mother sang opera. Her mother and grandmother had drummed into her head that kissing led to sex and sex could lead to only one thing - marriage. So when Anna started to date, she didn’t simply open up about her origins - she “forced her culture” on her dates: she would turn the subject to Anti-Semitism and Stalin before the bra could be removed, and perhaps sing some Russian laments. This was in order to check whether the boy in question was willing to take this stuff on.

As an immigrant, Anna needed to convey to the person she may be about to become intimate with, something of herself, what she had escaped, her background - that even if her family chose to leave that culture, part of it stayed with them. She does an impression of the guy’s response upon hearing about her Russian childhood, ‘Um I can understand that’ he says, desperately trying and desperately keen to get her bra off, ‘Actually I can’t understand that because I grew up in California, and it was pretty sunny, you know like the S.U.N,” pointing at the sky, “and Vitamin D gives you endorphins.” Touchingly, at Thanksgiving, the toasts are all to America; and the family attempts to feed Anna’s American friend the delicacy of cow’s brains as well as the turkey. 

I identified with this behaviour with boys - even though I never emigrated to Russia, I immersed myself in Russia over the years when most of my friends were rooting their lives and careers in the UK. It was hard for me to reconcile these parts of myself when visiting home from Russia, or even for the first years after my return when I was still traveling there a lot. On dates with ‘suitable’ English boys, I would rabbit on about Russia and use Russian words when nervous - I wanted to see if they would take it on, but also, for me, it was a safety mechanism to hide behind. And anyway, deep, dark intense subjects are a good precursor to sex, aren’t they?

Anna Fishbeyn performing in 'My Stubborn Tongue'
Having passed entirely convincingly as an American for many years, Anna decided to embrace her Russianness. She reverted to Anna (the Russian pronounced more like Honor) and began having to explain herself at parties. She was stunned by how little people knew about Russia. She said she originally wrote the play for her grandmother who came to the U.S., and never learned English. “My grandmother used to say, ‘We suffered in Russia and we suffered in America, what is the point of life?’” says Anna, “I wrote the play as an ode to my grandmother, an attempt to make sense of her suffering, of immigrant suffering.” But Anna also concedes that she wrote it for herself, to reconcile the disparate parts of personality. She does this literally also - this is a one-woman show and she plays several parts: her mother, grandmother, aunt, father, several non-plussed American boys, an Estee-Lauder saleslady, her ex-fiancĂ© and his mother, and herself.

Her director is an American-Romanian, Adrian Roman, who saw his own story in Anna’s when he first saw the performance. In this sense, hers is a story anyone who has emigrated or lived abroad and embedded themselves deep into another culture, can identify with. Many people who come through the doors of Pushkin House - whether it is Russians now living in London, or other foreign nationals who have lived a long time in Russia - have a misplaced or split identity syndrome, confused cultural references and a desire to piece it all together. Anna Fishbeyn performs this reconciliation in her play: watching her perform was healing and exhilarating.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The shuttle and the egg: a Russian Easter blog.

The apartments on Golden Lane where I live have little storage and the aesthetic is minimalist. Even so there are many things that decorate my rooms that serve no purpose but I am unable to throw away. In this and coming blogs I write about some of my Russian objects.

This shuttle was given to me by my Yuri and Sveta Vashchenko who have looked after me so well in Russia, especially in the first years I travelled there. Their dacha in Kostromskaya Oblast is full of such things - inherited and found in the empty dachas in the village and neighbouring villages, some of which are entirely abandoned. 

From first visiting Russia I always found that there was little to collect - few beautiful things were available to buy - this is no longer the case but it was then - it was difficult to decorate my flat and make things pretty. But Sveta always could. She could make a dish of lobio from tinned kidney beans taste wonderful and fresh, just with the help of a sprig of coriander. She could make soup out of some herbs from the dacha garden and some tinned meat. She could make breakfast pancakes out of a cup of milk and some flour. And she could decorate with whatever was to hand: their dacha is decorated with these peasant objects - utensils, tools - and also embroidered linens. In the 1980s, my mother invented the phrase ‘shabby chic’ - Sveta was also a natural adept. Their apartment in Moscow was made decorative and sophisticated by the lightest of touches. In their case it was elegant, simple, pre-revolutionary art nouveau photo frames, often with tiny openings for the actual photo. Yuri and Sveta’s bed has, instead of a bedstead - a dozen or so of these on the walls, holding tiny photographs of their parents and themselves and their children, some of them processed by Yuri in the darkroom in Sveta’s former studio. 

Their bed was narrow - I only noticed because we arranged for an American photographer to stay there one summer when they were at the dacha and he mentioned it - that it was the size of a single american bed. In the countryside Yuri and Sveta often slept in the senoval - the hayloft - where tall grass from around the house, scythed (by Sveta) was dried and then placed. It was the most fragrant place to sleep in the world. It was also incredibly romantic and couples who slept there would skip down to breakfast in the morning with a spring in their step and sing song voices. Indeed I had my first sexual experiences in Russia on the senoval at the dacha. I smile to think of it now - I was 19 and the boy in question a little younger. And there was another boy who slept there too - we always thought he was asleep - but I heard him whispering about what he had seen to a friend of his later on in Moscow, and was mortified.

I marvelled at the aesthetics of Yuri and Sveta. They knew and recognised the natural, the authentic and knew to cherish it, in a blighted country where there was so little that was decorative. I wanted to recreate it, but I couldn’t, not in Russia - I didn’t know how to handle, nor find, the materials. Yuri and Sveta did - they had an eye for it. This present of the spindle was part of that. It is made of birch wood and is very light. It was made by hand, and has been smoothed and polished by use and extensive handling. It was a kind of blessing for my choosing to be in Russia.

The egg I bought in Izmailovo - the flea market where you could, beginning in the late 1990s, buy soviet objets. Handicrafts began to become more popular to at this time also and painted eggs were one of the things that were sold. 

This weekend was Russian Orthodox Easter. At home people colour eggs dark red with onion skins - or you can buy turned and painted wooden eggs like this - a symbol of rebirth and hope.