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#2 Unexpected Cultural Highlights January 2018

Cultural highlight #1 Gabriel's Swiss friend Eric came to stay, fortuitously on Twelfth Night, the feast of the kings, and brought with him from the mainland a kind of flaky, nutty-goo filled tart, a speciality for this occasion, to follow Gwyneth's traditional end of Christmas paella. A small foldable silver cardboard crown came with it, and Gabriel won the prize. So here he is, somewhat disconcerted to find he nearly broke a tooth not on the Baby Jesus, or maybe a Flask of Myrrh, but on a miniature sporting shoe.

More Unexpected Cultural Highlights



Why did I ever agree to take a trip to Lille in January? Maybe I wasn't paying attention . . . It was all for the sake of French chanteuse Camille, with her floating and flowing veils, her rousing drummers and her men in kilts, featuring on a Jools Holland special. Verdict, three days later: Camille's show, in the vast, elderly and cavernous Sebastopol Theatre, was pretty good (although I think her first appearance, completely shrouded in a burqa and looking like a small, swaying blue mushroom, was a mistake), but Lille upstaged her. The Vauban Citadel (currently home of NATO's Rapid Reaction Force). The miraculously intact Old Town, cranky little streets full of fancy food shops, fashion and chocolate. The cathedral . . . well, it's originally Victorian Gothic, with a very strange 1990s Brutalist front end, so maybe not the cathedral. Jeanne and Marguerite of Flanders, C13 princesses, powerful and progressive. The Musee de Marionettes, (puppet shows still thriving, as popular proletarian entertainment, into the C20) . The staggering civic celebrations, and the siege of 1792, recorded by the Watteau of Lille. The enormous Palais De Beaux Arts, sharing the Place de la Republique with Man on Horse in cocked hat, chiefly notable for losing the Franco-Prussian War; didn't catch his name. The Art-Deco People's Piscine, out in Rubaix, re-purposed for a bountiful collection of modern (C19-C20) textiles, fashion, pots and glass.

You can see the Vauban fortifications of Lille laid out in full, in the artistically low-lit basement of the Palais de Beaux Arts, which holds relief plans all the strategic centres of France's north east (so popular with invading forces, and so unfortunately lacking in natural barriers). They are entrancing. We walked around it, as we were staying near the beautiful huge park by the student quarter, where it now hides in plain sight, with great naked winter trees towering up in what were the "wet ditch" earthworks, meant to defeat the approach of artillery Swags of Eighteenth century draperies,garlands, swords and flags mingle with more recent memorials: a monument for the gallant carrier pigeons of WWI; tablets remembering the fusillées, and those hung in their cells, in the Nazi occupation.

Who's "Vauban"? Try starting here, if you're interested. I'd heard of him, he's hard to avoid if you study C17 European History, however hazily; as I did, long ago. I'd never heard of Jeanne of Flanders (also known as Jeanne of Constantinople, the portrait's not contemporary of course) or her troublesome sister Marguerite. She ruled Flanders, apparently without male direction, at least some of the time; she fostered the Beguines movement (all-female independent communities, living outside patriarchy on a don't ask don't tell basis); "transformed the position of women in society", and founded the great "Hospital", that still stands, in its seventeenth century incarnation. Efficacy of the regime of cleanliess, good food, good nursing here attested by fine C17 portraits of sick children who recovered. Primitive, male "doctors" and "surgeons" were forbidden entry . . .

Something happened to Western Europe, between the splendid C13 and the dreadful, dreadful C14. I must get A Distant Mirror down from the loft and read it again, and see if I can find out why. Was it Climate Change, Corporate Greed, Bombastic Heads Of State? Or all of the above?

The big canvases of the city en fete put Hieronymous Bosch in context, and attest the Spanish influence around here, due to crazy mixed up European History. You want human heads and bodies popping out of a nightmarish giant fish? You want a party being held in a big half-eggshell? A whale as big as house, with many little legs? All kinds of weirdness.



In ways the best thing in the Palais de Beaux Arts was the giant Matt Collishaw "Whispering Weeds" = video-banner of a famous Dürer study, brought to life, hanging in the entrance hall (inspired idea). Plus the two for the price of one Millet exhibition. Jean-Francois Millet and the USA, exploring how his tender, romantic portraits of well-set-up farm workers got into the American psyche, and into the movies; and then there were the pictures. Read all about it here Otherwise, they've got the decorators in, and a few star attractions: Chardin x 1; Goya x1; Bosch x1. . . Plus yards and yards and yards of more or less attractive figurative art stuff designed to cover large expanses of wall, and be used as currency by the rich, exactly like most of "museum quality" contemporary art today; which is sort of reassuring in a way. Millet's last picture, from the year before he died, Les Dénicheurs, is unexpected, a Black Goya: depicting something gruesome from the winters of his childhood. Migrating pigeons roosted thick as autumn leaves in the trees around his family farm. Everyone would go out, blind them with flaming torches and beat them out of the trees, all confused, and kill them in their hundreds. A source of meat, of course. But an image of violence, cruelty and destruction. And fear, too. Poor man.


Les Glaneuses by Millet and Banksy


After the Beaux Arts we bought a picnic for the train, which didn't last long, and a big pain sucré to take home, on the way to the station. Peter had bought himself a little savoury tart. My ham and cheese and leeks toasted panini was nicer and there was more of it. After I'd kindly let him have one bite, I had to walk fast and keep my distance. Then we waited, with the Disneyland crowd; then we got on the train in a nice extra carriage Eurostar had found was needed, and then we went home.



This in La Piscine, the art deco baths turned gallery, a few stops out of the centre on the Metro. I'm afraid you can't see my favourite piece, a male bather, arms akimbo and loins thrust forward, his whole prideful stance exclaiming "These are my pants!" He comes in 3 sizes, as a bonus. How much Lille spoke to me of Manchester! Dirty old down, cleaned up for the post-industrial Age of Leisure


Cultural Highlight #3 was the concert at St Luke's Church (where they have a very nice Steinway) where And took us for Peter's birthday. The main event was Bartok's "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta", an amazing piece of music (that I now can't remember a thing about, and not easy to track down on disc; but it is on YouTube)

Cultural Highlight #4 was Songhoy Bluess, at the "O2 Forum" (Was, the Town and Country Club ) in Kentish Town on the 25th. I love The Songhoy Blues. The Toures' voices so warm and sonorous, the glittering guitar work. I wish I could tell you I danced the night away, but I cannot tell a lie. I leaned on a balustrade, and watched from a distance. It's so tiring being retired; I'm not cut out for non-stop treats in January. How could I help getting fascinated, by it all, but I'm going to have to get back to work, or invent some work, before I ruin my health.

We could go to Mali . . . It would be a challenge, but we could get to Bamako without flying. And then by boat to Timbuktu.
Just saying

Donate to Wateraid here (the band's sponsored charity)

& Get your Résistance here.

Je ne marche pas . . .

PS Lille old town was teeming with those gooey nut filled flaky pastry Kings tarts, lingering on.


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